Japan Keeps a High Wall for Foreign Labor

Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 2, 2011

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Despite facing an imminent labor shortage as its population ages, Japan has done little to open itself up to immigration. In fact, as Ms. Fransiska [Maria Fransiska, and Indonesian nurse] and many others have discovered, the government is doing the opposite, actively encouraging both foreign workers and foreign graduates of its universities and professional schools to return home while protecting tiny interest groups–in the case of Ms. Fransiska, a local nursing association afraid that an influx of foreign nurses would lower industry salaries.

In 2009, the number of registered foreigners here fell for the first time since the government started to track annual records almost a half-century ago, shrinking 1.4 percent from a year earlier to 2.19 million people–or just 1.71 percent of Japan’s overall population of 127.5 million.

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But instead of accepting young workers, however–and along with them, fresh ideas–Tokyo seems to have resigned itself to a demographic crisis that threatens to stunt the country’s economic growth, hamper efforts to deal with its chronic budget deficits and bankrupt its social security system.

“If you’re in the medical field, it’s obvious that Japan needs workers from overseas to survive. But there’s still resistance,” said Yukiyoshi Shintani, chairman of the Aoikai Group, the medical services company that is sponsoring Ms. Fransiska and three other nurses to work at a hospital outside Tokyo. “The exam,” he said, “is to make sure the foreigners will fail.”

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