An aging Japan slowly opens up to foreigners

Yanti Kartina left her family in Indonesia and joined 200 other nurses in moving to Japan, where a rapidly growing elderly population has created a desperate need for careers in old-age homes and hospitals.

The nurses, who are expected to learn Japanese and requalify as they work, are seen as an important test case as Japan struggles with the world’s fastest growing elderly population and a work force that is forecast to shrink, potentially devastating the economy.

“Japan is the first developed country to face this kind of population crisis,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former immigration bureau chief in Tokyo who now heads a research institute.

With more than a quarter of Japanese expected to be aged over 65 by 2015, the country faces serious economic consequences, including labor shortages that could weigh on the gross domestic product.

A group of governing party politicians see immigration as a possible solution and have presented Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda with a radical new proposal that seeks to have immigrants make up 10 percent of the population in 50 years’ time. Government figures show the work force is on course to shrink by eight million in the next 10 years.

If the necessary laws are passed, mass immigration could transform a country once so wary of foreigners that it excluded them almost entirely for more than 200 years until the 19th century.

“I don’t think there is any way forward but to accept immigrants,” Sakanaka said.

Even now, the idea of allowing in more foreigners is often described as a risk to Japan’s relatively crime-free and homogeneous society.

Many landlords refuse to rent apartments to foreigners and few Japanese employers offer immigrant workers the same rights as their Japanese colleagues. Less than 2 percent of Japan’s almost 128 million population are foreign-born.

Tetsufumi Yamakawa, chief economist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo, believes that immigration, combined with efforts to draw more women and elderly people into the labor market, could lift growth above the annual 1 percent or less forecast by many analysts.

“I think this is very good timing to start thinking about this,” he said. “The decline is already in sight.”

The Indonesian nurses, who have been recruited to work in short-staffed hospitals and homes for the elderly, are the latest wave of controlled immigration. Government officials hope they will face fewer problems than their predecessors.

More than 300,000 Brazilian immigrants of Japanese descent have been a boon for Japan’s automotive and electronics factories, where many of them work. They have also helped the Brazilian economy by remitting $2.2 billion dollars home in 2005, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

But in many ways, the Brazilians have failed to fit in even though they are the descendants of Japanese who left rural areas to start afresh in Latin America, mostly in the early 20th century.

Believing their heritage would give them an advantage in blending in, the Japanese government loosened conditions for working visas for them in 1990. The move was not entirely successful.

The Brazilians complain of discrimination and lack of schooling for their children, many of whom speak only Portuguese, while their Japanese neighbors are often shocked by their late-night parties and failure to conform to rules like trash recycling.

“They were just brought in and nothing was done to help them in terms of welfare,” said Hirohiko Nakamura, a lawmaker with the governing Liberal Democratic Party and a member of the committee that produced the new immigration report.

“Then people blame the foreigners for the problems, even though it’s Japan that invited them here and didn’t do anything for them,” he added.

The worst case, he says, are the tens of thousands of mostly Chinese workers allowed in on temporary “trainee” visas that allow them to work in menial jobs on farms and in factories.

That system has kept some small regional businesses ticking over, but reports of abuses like extremely low pay, sexual harassment and confiscated passports abound.

Many say that despite the desperate need for workers, Japan is setting hurdles too high for the latest batch of immigrants.

The Indonesian nurses and care workers will have only six months of Japanese study before starting full-time work. They must pass the relevant national examinations within three or four years while working as assistants, or be forced to return home.

Nakamura is optimistic about their chances, citing the example of some of the country’s highest profile immigrants.

“Look at the Mongolian sumo wrestlers,” he said. “They speak Japanese really well.”

But Sakanaka, the former immigration bureau chief, worried that the Indonesian nursing program would end in failure because of the complexity of the Japanese language and because he thought the rules had been made too strict.

“I think the system will turn out to be an embarrassment,” he said. “Almost nobody will pass and they will be told to go home.”

He advocates inviting in younger foreigners and allowing them to complete their training in Japanese before starting work.

On a broader basis, he and others say, opposition to immigration in Japan is less widespread than allegations of discrimination and exclusion would suggest.