Home » What Will Japan’s Great Reopening Mean for Immigration Policy?

What Will Japan’s Great Reopening Mean for Immigration Policy?

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On October 11, 2022, Japan made headlines throughout the world when it reopened its borders to individual tourism and visa-waiver travel. On the same day, the government also scrapped the daily entry cap on international arrivals, which had stood at 50,000 per day. The canceling of the cap, which had been in place for almost the entire duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, also signified the removal of one of the last hindrances to entry for non-tourist entry into Japan.

This normalization of border control policy, which the current government led by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio implemented in stages beginning in March of this year, allows Japan to return to accepting foreign workers. Before the pandemic, the administration of the late Abe Shinzo oversaw a rapid increase in the number of foreigners in Japan. According to data from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the foreign population increased by about 900,000 to almost 3 million from 2012 to 2019 – the last year before the pandemic. Abe also implemented numerous reforms to Japan’s immigration control policy, including a points-based scheme to attract highly skilled foreign professionals as well as the 2019 launch of two new resident statuses, Specified Skilled Worker (SSW) i & ii, for low- and medium-skilled workers in 14 industries suffering a labor shortage.

The pandemic, and specifically almost two years of some of the strictest border controls in the world, halted the trend of an expanding foreign workforce and raised new questions about how Japan sees the presence of foreigners within its borders. By January 2020, more than 400,000 foreigners with valid entry visas were waiting to enter the country. Many of these prospective foreign residents of Japan put their life on hold for up to two years in anticipation of borders reopening, putting a strain on both their finances and mental health.

Meanwhile, those foreigners that already reside in Japan were faced with new challenges in their adopted home. Immigrants around the world faced additional difficulties during the pandemic when compared to native populations in host societies, such as language barriers when accessing public health information or the potential loss of employment leading to a cancellation of visa status. In addition, Japan instituted policies specifically targeting foreigners, such as the initial re-entry ban that barred even long-term residents who happened to be outside of Japan from returning to their families and work.

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Furthermore, the framing of foreigners as potential carriers of the virus led to scapegoating and thus negative politicization of foreign residents. This trend was spurred by incidents such as a misreading of infection statistics that gave the impression that foreigners made up half of total coronavirus infections, as well as continued and detailed reporting on foreign infection clusters in Japanese media. Most infamously, a local health center warned residents “not to eat with foreigners” to prevent infections.

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On the political level, the debate vis-à-vis foreigners also shifted. During the Abe years, the expansion of the foreign workforce was oftentimes framed as an economic necessity. Throughout the pandemic, however, the focus shifted toward keeping foreigners out – even if only temporarily as part of COVID-19-related border measures. In January 2021, then-Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide came under fire from both ruling party and opposition lawmakers for his perceived lax approach at the border, despite employing one of the strictest border control policies in the world at the time. Keen to avoid a similar mistake, after Kishida assumed office in October of the same year one of his first major acts was to restore a complete entry ban on new foreign residents as the Omicron variant was emerging.

Both on the societal and political level, Japan has recently shown itself to be extremely skeptical when it comes to the presence of foreigners within its borders. Now, Japan has almost fully normalized its border control policy and looks set to admit thousands of new foreign workers in 2022. This begs the question: How will the country admit and incorporate newcomers going forward?

Even during the proactive policy environment of the Abe administration, there was a contradiction in the government’s approach, stemming from the framing of foreigners in economic terms. In 2018, during a National Diet session where he defended the introduction of the SSW status, Abe stated that “to combat the severe shortage of labor […] Japan will admit foreign human resources with a certain level of expertise while limiting their length of stay.” This underscores Japan’s core approach: While pathways are made for more and more foreigners to come and work in Japan, there was and is little effort to admit and incorporate these foreign workers as potential long-term members of society. During the same session, Abe doubled down on this sentiment, repeating a long-held trope of the policymaking establishment: “The government is not considering the adoption of a so-called immigration policy.”

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This fundamental stance was reflected in Abe’s policies. Despite the changes he made to Japan’s immigration control policy outlined above, a significant percentage of the growth in the foreign workforce came from international students engaging in part-time work and an increase in participants in the highly controversial Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). The pandemic does not seem to have bucked this trend. Of the 400,000 foreigners waiting to enter Japan by January 2022, about 153,000 were international students and 129,000 were technical interns. On the other hand, Abe’s flagship policy achievements have been slow to take hold. Only 31,451 highly skilled foreign professionals and 87,471 SSW status holders have been admitted in total since those programs were introduced in 2012 and 2019, respectively.

Relying on working students and technical interns to fill systematic labor needs may be attractive as a cost-effective short-term solution for employers, but it arguably does not constitute a sustainable policy direction for Japan going forward. This is because it does not incentivize employers to undergo fundamental change to their businesses’ competitiveness going forward, and the rotational nature of these systems prohibits the establishment of a foreign labor reserve with work experience in Japan and proficiency in the language.

Abe was correct about the structural need for foreign workers. Japan’s demographic crisis and resulting labor shortage has been well documented, and a recent JICA report suggested that the country will need to more than quadruple its foreign workforce to 6.74 million just to maintain current levels of economic output.

However, maintaining the country’s principle of not adopting a formalized immigration policy at the national level has consequences, as the pandemic has shown in bringing to light underlying xenophobic tendencies held by a segment of both the political class and society at large. This in turn raises questions about Japan’s attractiveness as a destination country, as tales of the struggles faced by foreign residents will have reached potential newcomers through migration networks. In addition, strong economic growth in primary sending countries such as Vietnam are a potential bottleneck for foreign labor supply going forward. Finally, Japan’s wages are already among the lowest in developed countries, and the weak yen further suppresses the earning potential for foreigners.

During the height of the pandemic and into the present, the political will to tackle immigration reform built up during the second Abe administration seems largely lost. Despite being the architect of Abe’s reforms, Suga made negative headlines on the issue during his brief time as prime minister. He attempted (and ultimately failed) to pass a bill that sought to tighten regulations on asylum seekers even as the country was grappling with the untimely death of a Sri Lankan woman, who died while held at an immigration facility after allegedly suffering improper treatment.

Suga’s replacement has been slightly more proactive. Shortly after Kishida assumed office, the government announced it was considering expanding eligibility to the SSW (ii) status, which potentially allows for unlimited stay and family reunification, but has only one total status holder at the time of writing. More recently, Kishida has stated his intention to revamp Japan’s policies to attract high-skilled foreign professionals, including measures targeted at foreign students among these plans. However, there is scarce detail with regards to time frame and specifics on both potential reforms, which would arguably only constitute incremental and not fundamental change.

Japan is thus at a crossroads. Faced with increasing demand for foreign workers and new doubts about its ability to entice them, there appears to be a need for change. At the same time, there is little will at the political level to undertake this change, especially when it comes to the government’s core policy direction. Japan will not suddenly declare itself to be a “country of immigration,” as Germany did in the early 2000s while instituting a slew of new integration and citizenship policies.

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All this leads to one final question. When it comes to immigration, where is Japan heading?

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