Ageing, insular Japan slowly discovers the benefits of immigration

It says much about Japan’s fortress-like approach to immigration that it made news when the country accepted 27 refugees from Burma late last year.

They were first of a group of 90 Burmese that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office persuaded Japan to accept as arguably a first baby step towards creating an humanitarian immigration program

Figures from the UNHCR suggest that although Japan ratified the Refugee Convention of 1982, it has accepted just 500 refugees since then. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it took three years for Japan to accept 500 refugees from the Indochinese exodus, although it eventually took in another 10,000.

Since then the number of refugees accepted each year (about 30) has been tiny for an industrialised nation, even though almost half of applications for asylum came from Asia between 2005 and 2009.

In comparison, Australia accepts more than 13,000 humanitarian migrants each year.

Unmoved, Japan has sat back in isolation, watching as Australia, Canada, the US and Europe’s societies became increasingly multicultural and, in many cases, more affluent.

Perhaps the biggest boost to productivity and growth in these countries has come from judiciously chosen skilled migrants, but refugees have made a startling contribution of their own.

Five of the eight Australian billionaires in 2000 were from refugee families and Australia counts Gustav Nossal and Frank Lowy among a host of humanitarian migrant success stories. Research suggests the children of refugees will produce an even greater impact.

Similar lessons exist within Japan, should it choose to heed them. Masayoshi Son, the head of multibillion technology company Softbank and Japan’s equivalent to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, is of Korean-Chinese decent. There are many other high-flyers within the country’s Zainichi Korean community, who are descendants of labourers brought to Japan (often unwillingly) during the country’s colonisation of the Korean Peninsula, and in the lead-up to World War II.

The government’s most significant recent attempt at an economic migration initiative was classically Japanese: faced with labour shortages in the boom years of the early 1990s, it imported workers from South America. But only those from the Japanese communities of Peru and Brazil, as it was felt they would assimilate better. Recently, with the economy in the doldrums, it began paying these people to go home, provided, in many cases, that they agreed never to return, a miserable end to a short-sighted experiment.

But it is precisely this economic stagnation that is the at the nub of a new push to establish a more comprehensive skilled migration program. The idea that immigration is of net benefit to productivity and economic growth is not universally accepted in Japan, although it is beginning to win favour in some quarters.

Projections suggest Japan’s population is on track to drop from 127 million to just 90 million in the next 45 years, by which time almost 40 per cent would be aged over 65. A look at a bar chart of the age distribution of the Japanese population in the 1950s looks like a Christmas tree, a wide base comprised of people of working age or younger, tapering off to a thin peak of older people.

Now the chart looks like the profile of a rugby player: bulging shoulders comprised of workers in their 50s or 60s, gradually thinning through the younger age groups.

Fast-forward to 2055 and the profile becomes more like an invertered pyramid, with relatively few young and productive workers supporting a host of retirees.

For the rest of the developed world, Japan is the canary in the mine of demographic change. Most wealthy nations will face the same challenges, although perhaps later than Japan, and perhaps not as severely. This grim reality is driving some pressure for change in Japan. There is now a cross-party group of MPs dedicated to radically (by Japanese standards anyway) upgrading Japan’s immigration program.

A needlessly pedantic Japanese language exam that was cruelling the prospects of foreign nurses from The Philippines and Indonesia (a rare example of a skilled migration initiative in Japan) is being revised to focus on technical proficiency rather than advanced linguistics.

Labour shortages in aged care (one of the few boom industries in Japan at the moment) and other less desirable areas of work are increasing pressure on authorities to look abroad for workers.

A recent paper by the Japan Forum on International Relations that argued for a heavily increased skilled migration program attracted 90 signatories, among them politicians, academics, business leaders and former diplomats.

One of the paper’s authors, JFIR president Kenichi Ito, says he sees Australia’s skilled migration program (which takes in more than 100,000 people a year), along with those of the US and Canada, as examples for Japan to follow.

But even a liberal such as Ito warns of the dangers of resettlement failures, pointing to tensions in France and Germany as a reason to proceed carefully down the path of opening up Japan.

Another co-author of the paper, Kwansei University academic Yasushi Iguchi, says the Japanese government needs to come up with a much more active policy on accepting refugees.

The Japan Association for Refugees says there have been some small steps towards fairer treatment for asylum-seekers in Japan, but beyond the agreement to take 90 Burmese, there are no moves for an increase in humanitarian migrants.

Associate secretary-general Eri Ishikawa says the UNHCR believes Japan imposes too great a burden of proof of persecution on asylum-seekers and the system is too strict.

The main applicant nationalities of the 1380 asylum-seekers in 2009 were Burmese, Sri Lankans, Kurdish Turks and Pakistanis. Most of these people’s cases are still going through the system, as it takes two years for a decision.

Ishikawa says rights of appeal are limited and the justice ministry judges both the first application and the subsequent appeal.

Japan, unlike Australia, doesn’t have mandatory detention, rather it is up to immigration officers’ discretion and some applicants do end up in detention centres. At the moment, there are 207 asylum-seekers detained in Japan. Many asylum-seekers are allowed to work, but few would earn enough to fund a court case, which is the final option of review.

“We don’t have specific numbers in mind that should be granted asylum, but we want the Japanese government to have fairer asylum procedures and fairer treatment of applicants,” Ishikawa says.

While Japan has a small but strong nationalist movement, Ishikawa says public sentiment is trending towards greater acceptance of foreigners.

“I think the public opinion is really positive about accepting more refugees and the media response is really encouraging. Japan’s media always criticises the low number of refugees accepted,” she says.

In risk-averse Japan there is a longstanding preoccupation with social cohesion and doubts over whether new arrivals will fit in. But this is seen as a two-way street, and Japanese expect their fellow citizens and their government to make efforts to assist refugees to settle down and learn the language and customs of the place.

Ishikawa says the tiny Burmese community has fitted in well and perhaps that’s why the government chose to accept refugees from there, above other places.

But you can’t run a skilled migration program with nationality as a criterion – whoever applies with the right skills should get the visa, regardless of where they come from.

If this is to be the way forward, it seems monocultural Japan must learn to embrace cultural differences while enjoying the much needed boost to the economy the newcomers will generate.