Posted on September 12, 2019

The Great Immigration Experiment: Can a Country Let People in Without Stirring Backlash?

Alastair Gale and River Davis, Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2019


{snip} One of the world’s most immigration-resistant countries is trying to attract workers needed for jobs ranging from apple picking to airport baggage handling.

To do that, Japan is imposing strict rules in an effort to head off the kind of social and political turmoil that migration has brought to the U.S. and Europe. In many cases, foreign workers in Japan can’t bring family members and can’t stay longer than five years. Most programs require Japanese-language proficiency. Only in the most labor-starved industries can foreigners secure a path to permanent residency — and the government can cut off the flow if the shortage eases.


Japan’s experiment, which some business leaders and human-rights groups say is too restrictive, is a test of whether a country can bring in foreign workers without sparking the kind of populist backlash that has turned immigration into a divisive issue in the U.S., Germany, Italy, the U.K. and other countries.

As Japan debated opening up, some politicians and newspaper editorials warned that it needed to avoid the instability seen in the West.

“It would be a disaster if we ended up with the same problems as the U.S. and Europe because we don’t have a proper immigration policy,” Yuichiro Tamaki, the leader of opposition Democratic Party for the People, said late last year as policy makers put together plans to allow in more foreigners.

In the past four years, the number of foreign workers in Japan has nearly doubled to 1.46 million, and a new visa system promises to accelerate the influx. At the same time, the country’s political system is as stable as it has been in decades. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in power for nearly seven years, easily scored a victory in July’s parliamentary elections, where immigration was hardly discussed.


In a survey of 27 countries by the Pew Research Center last year, Japan was the only nation in which those wanting immigration to rise outnumbered those who thought it should decline.

Nonetheless, fast-tracked plans to bring in more foreign workers have stirred some concern about large numbers of foreigners failing to integrate into society and burdening Japan’s financially strained public health-care program. Supporters of the program who say they need more workers have been equally vocal.


The policy isn’t about recasting Japan as a nation of immigrants or fulfilling any obligation to accept people from war-torn nations. Immigration authorities say they granted residency to only 82 refugees last year, less than 1% of those applying — a statistic that prompted objections from some foreign groups but relatively little discussion at home.

Japan’s population has been shrinking for a decade, and nearly three in 10 people are 65 or older. Last year, the number of Japanese living in Japan fell by around 430,000, roughly the population of Oakland, Calif., contributing to the greatest scarcity of job applicants in more than 40 years.

Convenience stores previously open 24 hours are now closing before midnight, parcel companies are limiting delivery hours because they can’t find drivers and the nation’s military is running short of new soldiers.


In the city of Settsu, near Osaka, the local government is in a standoff with people opposed to the construction of a training center for Vietnamese and Indonesian workers in a residential area. Posters and banners around the proposed construction site display slogans such as: “The center threatens the safety of our children.”

The proposed facility would provide a month of language and other training for around 60 workers before they move on to jobs elsewhere.

“I’m not opposed to immigration, but Japan is an island nation. For hundreds of years, it’s been the same people,” said Yoshio Hashimoto, who heads a group opposed to the training center. “With 10 or so people, crime probably wouldn’t rise. But make this 100 people or 200 people, and of course the risk of crime will rise.”

To ease such tensions, the new visa program requires candidates to prove a basic level of Japanese-language ability. English and other languages aren’t widely spoken in Japan.


The program allows the government to dial back immigration if there is a recession or technological shift that eliminates the need for foreign help. Economists at Mitsubishi Research Institute, a think tank, forecast that Japan’s labor shortage will peak at around two million people next year and gradually fall back to zero around 2028 because of expected advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.

For now, foreign workers enjoy something of a seller’s market, with Japan competing against other relatively affluent Asian nations that also have worker shortages. South Korea issues around 45,000 visas each year for workers from countries such as Pakistan and Nepal to take positions in manufacturing, fisheries and other sectors. Draft legislation in Taiwan aims to attract foreigners to fill labor shortages in areas including nursing.


Japanese officials say they are working to improve inspections of businesses that hire foreign workers under the new visa program.