Japan Mulls Importing Foreign Workers

The prospect of a shrinking, rapidly aging population is spurring a debate about whether Japan is so insular that it once barred foreigners from its shores for two centuries should open up to more foreign workers.

Japan’s 2 million registered foreigners, 1.57 percent of the population, are at a record high but minuscule compared with the United States’ 12 percent.

For the government to increase those numbers would be groundbreaking in a nation conditioned to see itself as racially homogeneous and culturally unique, and to equate “foreign” with crime and social disorder.

“I think we are entering an age of revolutionary change,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute and a vocal proponent of accepting more outsiders. “Our views on how the nation should be and our views on foreigners need to change in order to maintain our society.”

Schooling is compulsory in Japan until age 16, but only for citizens. So foreign kids can skip school with impunity. Arrangements such as special Japanese classes for newcomers are ad hoc and understaffed. Many of the foreigners [are illegally denied] pensions or the same health benefits as Japanese workers because they’re hired through special [and for the most part, illegal] job brokers.

The population is 127 million and is forecast to plunge to about 100 million by 2050, when more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older and drawing health and pension benefits. Less than half of Japanese, meanwhile, will be of working age of 15-64.

Fearing disastrous drops in consumption, production and tax revenues, Japan’s bureaucrats are scrambling to boost the birthrate and get more women and elderly into the work force. But many Japanese are realizing that foreigners must be part of the equation.

Few support throwing the doors wide open. Instead, they want educated workers, engineers, educators and health professionals, preferably arriving with Japanese-language skills.

Corporate leaders are prime movers. “We can create high-value and unique services and products by combining the diversity of foreigners and the teamwork of the Japanese,” said Hiroshi Tachibana, senior managing director of Japan’s top business federation, Keidanren.

But government officials are so touchy about the subject that they deny the country has an immigration policy at all, and insist on speaking of “foreign workers” rather than “immigrants” who might one day demand citizenship.

Immigration in Japan does not have a happy history. The first wave in modern times came a century or more ago from conquered lands in Korea and China, sometimes in chains as slaves. Those still here the largest group being Koreans and their descendants still suffer discrimination and isolation.

Even today, the policy seems to lack coherent patterns. In 2005, for instance, about 5,000 engineers entered Japan, along with 100,000 “entertainers” _ even after that vaguely defined status was tightened because it was being used as a cover for the sex trade and human trafficking.

“Everybody, I think, is agreed on one thing: We want to attract the `good’ foreigners, and keep out the `bad’ ones,” said Hisashi Toshioka, of the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau.