Abe walks a tightrope on Japan’s foreign worker policy

The number of foreign nationals working in Japan reached its highest-ever level in October 2017 at 1,278,670, according to a study by the labor ministry (bit.ly/mhlwhoudou). The foreign proportion of the population remains tiny compared to that in European countries or North America, yet the impact of the growing ranks of foreign workers is considerable in Japan, where the myth of ethnic homogeneity stubbornly persists (despite the existence of minorities, such as the Ainu and Okinawan people). What is this impact?

Well, that depends on the type of citizen being impacted upon. Let’s divide the citizenry into three broad categories based on their basic attitude toward foreign residents in general.

The nationalists

The first category comprises citizens with a pure nationalist outlook. This mind-set strongly rejects the idea of non-Japanese entering and establishing themselves within the archipelago. Those with this sentiment believe that foreign workers threaten Japan’s carefully cultivated customs and culture. Their mantra is “More foreigners means Japan will no longer be Japan.”

As silly as this may all sound, xenophobes take this mantra quite seriously. In 2015, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) teamed up with popular animated character Chibi Maruko, who uttered the slogan “There are no national borders for friendship!” (“Tomodachi ni kokkyō wa nai!“)

Those who strongly support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Diet are known as “Abe’s children.” One of these “children,” Masaaki Akaike, tore into Chibi Maruko’s declaration on his blog.

“I was bowled over when I saw this poster,” he wrote. “The international community is where nations fight over national interest. … The country we know as Japan will cease to exist if education is administered without a sense of national identity.” Akaike then went on to say that the MEXT bureaucrats should do some serious soul-searching over the Chibi Maruko slogan.

The multinationalists

The second category of citizens comprises those who embrace the “globalization of Japan.” Nearly all corporations more or less fall into this category. Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) has been urging the government for years for the aggressive admission of foreign workers. (See Keidanren’s Nov. 21, 2016, article, bit.ly/keidanren.) A closed domestic environment can in fact hinder corporations from doing international business. Put candidly, a corporation cares not one whit about the nationality of employees if they are talented and work hard for the benefit of the company.

In 2010, mobile phone company Softbank ad even toyed with the idea of “an end to national borders.” Such a bold tag line was adopted not by a liberal or an anarchist but by a modern corporation.

The apprehensive

The third category are citizens who feel an ill-defined sort of anxiety toward the increase in foreign workers. These people have had no particular bad experience with non-Japanese. They simply harbor a vague unease toward a creeping increase in people speaking foreign languages and toward the gradual transformation of Japanese society. It’s an intangible insecurity that is hardly helped by the added pressure from the government (through MEXT), whose message is effectively, “It’s getting to the point that you won’t be able to survive unless you can speak English.”

At the same time, however, category 3 citizens sense that the plunge in the birth rate and rapidly accelerating aging of society mean that Japan has no choice but to accept foreign workers.

It seems that those in this category represent a clear majority — those who are so-called nonpori (apolitical). On the one hand, the Abe government has a close relationship with Keidanren, and it pushes for the category 2 policy that Keidanren supports. On the other hand, Abe cannot abandon his core demographic of support, the nationalist-minded folks in category 1. The apolitical in category 3 may be the biggest group, but since they are apolitical, Abe can basically ignore them.

Many in this group support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) only because they feel they have no other choice, since the opposition parties have failed to capitalize on Abe’s scandals and flagging approval ratings. This means that when devising policy on foreign workers, Abe must walk a tightrope, balancing between the wishes of those in category 1 and 2, meaning the two minority groups end up with the most political influence. Passive support for the Abe government, however, could turn on a dime.

As a result of Abe’s tightrope walk, on Feb. 20, 2018, he gave the following statement on behalf of his administration:

“While we stand by our position against adopting an immigration policy, we would like to set limits on the period of stay for specialist and technical-expert foreigners. While keeping an eye on areas where there is real need, under presumed conditions such as not permitting family members to accompany them, we would like to consider the specifics of systemic change.”

What steady feet! Let’s “translate” what this tightrope walker really appears to be saying:

“Japan’s labor shortage is serious, so we will change the system to make it easier to use foreign workers to efficiently fill the gaps in areas where shortages exist. Japan has thus far permitted only specialist or technical expert labor and has taken the official tatemae (facade) public stance of not granting visas to nonspecialist work. But the labor shortage is even more acute in nontechnical fields, so we need to rework the system to enable such nonspecialist labor. However, we cannot let foreign workers become a real part of Japanese society. We will only admit them to plug the gaps of labor shortages. No way can we let them bring their families or allow them to settle as immigrants. We have to make sure they go home after a few years.”

I sighed when I heard this statement (and parsed the meaning of it). Japan has never seriously considered a genuine policy toward foreign workers. Instead, the government simply makes things up out of expediency, only addressing the immediate issue in front of them. The government has come up with no grand design to enable non-Japanese to coexist in Japanese society on a long-term, sustainable basis.

In an effort to appease categories 1 and 2, Abe’s administration ends up saying nothing of substance. What can you say in response to a policy that basically says, “Don’t bring your family”?

It seems Abe has learned nothing from the history of immigration to and from European countries. Foreign workers are not commodities. Nor are they robots. They are human beings with the full range of human emotions. No serious policy to address the issue of how Japan accepts foreign workers will ever be possible until the government understands this fundamental and obvious truth.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at tozen.okunuki@gmail.com. Labor Pains appears in print on the last Monday of the month in the Japan Times.