Tokyo finally grasps the migration nettle

When it comes to immigration reform, the Japanese government seems, for once, to have heeded the wisdom in the political adage, never waste a good crisis.

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun has revealed the government will introduce a points-based skilled migration program by the end of the year. It’s a reform that’s been considered for a long time, but the tsunami and nuclear crisis seems to have convinced the government to finally seize the day.

Immigration in Japan, which is nearly ethnically homogenous, is always a touchy issue. Public opposition or, perhaps more accurately, caution, has seen Japan’s political leaders take tiny and often misguided steps towards opening the country up to greater immigration.

Now, all eyes are on the disaster, so voters are less likely to oppose, or even notice, the introduction of a long-overdue migration system of the kind that has served Australia, Canada and the US so well.

The timing is also serendipitous because the exodus of foreign nationals after the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis has seen a host of jobs become available, many of which can’t be filled with local staff.

Japan’s leading businesses are also pushing for this kind of reform as they look to boost their global competitiveness to keep pace with their rivals in China, India, South Korea and elsewhere in Asia.

The Yomiuri report suggests that points will be awarded to skilled migrants based on their education, work experience and annual income. It is expected to apply to the academic, technology and corporate sectors. Bonus points will be given for Japanese language skills.

The government also intends making it easier to obtain permanent residency and easing work limits for spouses for some visa holders.

It can’t come soon enough for the beleaguered economy, which is battling population decline, weak demand, structural problems and now an unprecedented combination of natural and nuclear disaster.

With Keynesian-style stimulus programs off the table as the government finally begins to tackle debt levels, increasing immigration is increasingly being viewed as one way to spark economic growth.

Hidenori Sakanaka, a former top immigration official turned NGO leader, said the recent disaster made it even more vital for Japan to open up to immigration. “A falling birth rate and an ageing population mean that the country has far too few young, productive workers,” the head of Tokyo’s Humanitarian Immigrant Support Centre said in a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal.

“This will become even more noticeable as the current working generation begins to retire. Unless radical policies are implemented, it is simply a matter of time before manufacturing, consumption, tax receipts, fiscal health, the pension and welfare system, and the very ability of people to make a living will all collapse under the inexorable dual pressures of rapid ageing and rapid declines in the young working population.”

He said immigration would be vital for reinvigorating industries, including fishing and agriculture where the tsunami has upped the pressure on a geriatric workforce in the affected areas.

Mr Sakanaka said Japan needed to bring in 10 million workers over the next 50 years to stem population decline, and a skills-based system that offered pathways to permanent residency and citizenship was the best way to do it.

“To start, Japan needs a total overhaul of its system for foreign students and trainees,” he said. “Currently those students have few or no prospects for staying permanently. Only 30 per cent of foreign students graduating from Japanese universities stay in Japan. That number must be closer to 70 per cent.”

He also hit out at Japan’s guest-worker schemes that have allowed the exploitation of “trainees” from China on ultra-low wages on short-term visas.

“A country with a declining population does not need guest workers,” Mr Sakanaka said.

“At a minimum, any foreign worker in steady employment should be able to apply for permanent status.

“Japan must recognise that globalisation is here to stay and should stake its very survival on accepting people elsewhere in the world as its brethren and transforming itself into a much more multicultural, diverse society.

“It will be a large task, but Japan is past the point where easy solutions will do.”

It remains doubtful, however, that immigration reform will be tackled in the short term on the scale required to address population decline and boost economic growth.

More likely it will serve to plug certain skill gaps and serve to boost public acceptance of migration, which will hopefully lead to increases in other classes of migration including Japan’s woefully low acceptance of humanitarian refugees.