Foreigners will have a much better opportunity to move to, or continue to live in, Japan under a new immigration plan drafted by Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers to accept 10 million immigrants in the next 50 years.
“The plan means (some politicians) are seriously thinking about Japan’s future,” said Debito Arudou, who is originally from the United States but has lived in Japan for 20 years and became a naturalized citizen in 2000. “While it is no surprise by global standards, it is a surprisingly big step forward for Japan.”
The group of some 80 lawmakers, led by former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, finalized the plan on June 12 and aims to submit it to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda later this week.
The plan is “the most effective way to counter the labor shortage Japan is doomed to face amid a decreasing number of children,” Nakagawa said.
While establishing an environment to encourage women to continue to work while rearing children is important to counter the expected labor shortage, bringing in foreign workers is the best solution for immediate effect, said the plan’s mastermind, Hidenori Sakanaka, director general of the private think tank Japan Immigration Policy Institute.
“We will train immigrants and make sure they get jobs and their families have decent lives,” Sakanaka said in explaining the major difference between the new plan and current immigration policy. “We will take care of their lives, as opposed to the current policy, in which we demand only highly skilled foreigners or accept foreigners only for a few years to engage in simple labor.”
Japan had 2.08 million foreign residents in 2006, accounting for 1.6 percent of the population of 128 million. Raising the total to 10 million, or close to 10 percent of the population, may sound bold but is actually modest considering that most European countries, not to mention the U.S., have already exceeded this proportion, Sakanaka said.
Fukuda outlined in a policy speech in January his aim to raise the number of foreign students to 300,000 from the current 130,000, but without specifying a timetable.
However, the immigration plan calls for the goal to be achieved soon and for the government to aim for 1 million foreign students by 2025. It also proposes accepting an annual 1,000 asylum seekers and other people who need protection for humanitarian reasons.
Akio Nakayama, manager of the Tokyo office of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, said the important thing about the new plan pitched by the LDP members is that it would guarantee better human rights for immigrants.
“The plan emphasizes that we will accept immigrants, not foreign workers, and let them live in Japan permanently,” Nakayama said.
“The most remarkable point is that immigrants’ family members are included,” he said. “I have never seen this in similar proposals.”
Also, he praised the plan for proposing changes to the resident registration law to allow children born in Japan to foreign parents to have Japanese citizenship. Under the current Nationality Law, one of the parents must be Japanese and the parents must be legally married for their children to have Japanese citizenship.
This provision, however, was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, allowing 10 children born to Filipino mothers and Japanese fathers out of wedlock to gain the right to Japanese nationality.
The plan also includes establishing an entity to be called the Immigration Agency to integrate related duties that are now shared by multiple government bodies.
Among other proposals, the plan calls for extending the maximum duration of student and working visas to five years from the current three, easing the conditions for granting permanent resident status, setting up more Japanese-language and culture centers overseas and outlawing racism.
Arudou, a foreigners’ rights activist, noted the importance of establishing a legal basis for specifically banning discrimination against non-Japanese.
“Founding a legal basis is important because people do not become open just because the government opens the door,” he said.
Also under the plan, the foreign trainee program, which supports Japanese companies and organizations that hire foreigners to work up to three years in Japan, would be abolished. Some trainees who have come to Japan under the program have sued their employers, claiming they have been abused with minimal pay and harsh working conditions.
This set of bold proposals appears positive, but Minoru Morita, a political critic at Morita Research Institute Co., doubts Nakagawa’s plan will be formally adopted by the LDP anytime soon.
“Expanding immigrants to this large of a scale may cause social instability,” he said. “Nakagawa will face difficulty gaining support from LDP colleagues and ministry officials.”
He added that Nakagawa may have come up with the plan because he could be angling to become the next prime minister and would therefore want to stand out with a bold policy proposal. “Nakagawa may have to water down the proposals,” Morita said.
Fears over the consequences of bringing in more foreigners are probably shared by many in a country where people consider themselves highly homogeneous.
“Immigrants surely bring dynamism to the Japanese economy, as well as crime,” said a researcher at a public entity studying crimes committed by foreigners. The researcher asked not to be named.
While the researcher admitted immigrants would be better treated if the new plan were adopted and thus their motivation for committing crimes would decrease, he added: “But what if they lose their jobs? What if the economy worsens? We cannot take better care of unemployed immigrants than Japanese because we should treat them equally.”
Goro Ono, author of “Bringing Foreign Workers Ruins Japan,” does not think bringing in immigrants is necessary.
Ono, an honorary professor at Saitama University, said he does not believe Japan is facing a labor shortage now or in the future.
“If industries where labor is in high demand pay adequate salaries, people will work there,” he said.
Ono said nursing is a good example. Japan is actively bringing in Indonesians and other foreigners to cover a dire shortage because nurses here are woefully underpaid, he said, while on the other hand public entities never have trouble finding garbage collectors because they get decent salaries.
Ono also brought up the lack of discussion about the cost of preparing the infrastructure to accept more immigrants.
Sakanaka is ready to face such criticism just as all revolutionaries have in the past. His proposals would shake up Japan from the inside and it would be a historical moment if they all became law, he said.
“The Meiji Restoration was the first stage in opening up the country to foreigners,” he said. “Now we are entering the second stage.”