Toru Hanai / Reuters A tourist in front of Tokyo's Imperial Palace, November 2016.

Is Japan Becoming a Country of Immigration?

Why More Foreign Labor Doesn't Imply Liberalization

As the only advanced industrial democracy that has closed its borders to unskilled migrant labor since the end of World War II, Japan has long been viewed as hostile to immigration. Although the number of foreign nationals in Japan has grown at a rapid pace in recent years—from 850,000 in 1985 to almost 2.6 million in 2017—foreign residents still make up less than two percent of the total population, compared with between eight and 25 percent in western European countries. And only one-fifth of Japan’s foreign workers hold visas explicitly intended for labor immigration, which is restricted to the highly skilled.

Japan’s aging population, however, is creating a demand for foreign labor. Japan’s population peaked at 127.8 million in 2004 and has fallen by over 1.5 million since then, and its working-age population has dropped by over ten million since 1997. Nationwide, the ratio of job openings to applicants now stands at around 1.6, the highest it has been since the height of the so-called economic miracle over four decades ago. Workers in construction and mining, caretaking, food service, hospitality, and retail are in particularly short supply. In July 2018, the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents the country’s small- and medium-sized businesses, reported that around 65 percent of members had difficulty meeting labor requirements despite wage increases.

In the face of these shortages, the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shifted toward a greater openness to foreign workers, although the word “immigration” remains taboo. Since 2015, the Ministry of Justice has dramatically expanded quotas and stay durations for construction workers in preparation for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The 2016 Japan Revitalization Strategy, an annual policy report published by the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, repeatedly mentions the need for “foreign talent” (gaikokujin jinzai), a term that includes unskilled labor, as a critical tool for economic recovery. And in May of this year, the administration announced its intention to admit up to 500,000 additional workers in agriculture, construction, lodging, nursing, and shipbuilding through 2025.

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