Japan eyes more foreign workers, stealthily challenging immigration taboo

Desperately seeking an antidote to a rapidly aging population, Japanese policymakers are exploring ways to bring in more foreign workers without calling it an "immigration policy".

Immigration is a touchy subject in a land where conservatives prize cultural homogeneity and politicians fear losing votes from workers worried about losing jobs.

But a tight labor market and ever-shrinking work force are making Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policy team and lawmakers consider the politically controversial option.

Signaling the shift, leading members of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel on Tuesday proposed expanding the types of jobs open to foreign workers, and double their numbers from current levels of close to one million.

"Domestically, there is a big allergy. As a politician, one must be aware of that," Takeshi Noda, an adviser to the LDP panel, told Reuters in an interview.

Unlike the United States, where Donald Trump has made immigration an election issue, Japan has little history of immigration. But, that makes ethnic and cultural diversity seem more of a threat in Japan than it may seem elsewhere.

And while Japan is not caught up in the mass migration crisis afflicting Europe, the controversies in other regions do color the way Japanese think about immigration.

LDP lawmakers floated immigration proposals almost a decade ago, but those came to naught. Since then, however, labor shortages have worsened and demographic forecasts have become more dire.

By any other name

An economic uptick since Abe took office in December 2012, rebuilding after the 2011 tsunami and a construction boom ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have pushed labor demand to its highest in 24 years.

That has helped boost foreign worker numbers by 40 percent since 2013, with Chinese accounting for more than one-third followed by Vietnamese, Filipinos and Brazilians.

But visa conditions largely barring unskilled workers mean foreigners still make up only about 1.4 percent of the workforce, compared with the five percent or more found according to IMF estimates in most advanced economies.

So far, measures to attract more foreign workers have focused on easing entry for highly skilled professionals and expanding a "trainee" system that was designed to share technology with developing countries, but which critics say has become a backdoor source of cheap labor.

This time, the LDP panel leaders' proposal went further, suggesting foreigners be accepted in other sectors facing shortages, such as nursing and farming initially for five years with visa renewal possible.

They also proposed creating a framework whereby the number of foreign workers would be doubled from around 908,000 currently, and the term "unskilled labor" would be abandoned.

In a sign of the sensitivies, however especially ahead of a July upper house election panel chief Yoshio Kimura stressed the proposal should not be misconstrued as an "immigration policy" and said steps were needed to offset any negative impact on jobs and public safety.

After a heated debate in which one lawmaker said the plan would "leave Japan in tatters", members agreed to let the panel organizers decide whether to make any revisions to the proposal.

Experts, however, say changes are afoot regardless of the semantics.

"The government insists it is not adopting an immigration policy, but whatever the word, faced with a shrinking population, it is changing its former stance and has begun to move toward a real immigration policy," said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former Tokyo Immigration Bureau chief.

Two cabinet members have already advocated adopting an immigration policy, as have some LDP panel members.

"The fundamental problem of the Japanese economy is that the potential growth rate is low," LDP panel adviser Seiichiro Murakami told Reuters. "To raise that, big structural reforms including … immigration policy are necessary."

The influential Nikkei Business weekly has dubbed a foreign worker-driven growth strategy "imin-omics", a pun on the premier's "Abenomics" revival plan and "imin", the Japanese word for "immigrants".

Abe, however, has made drawing more women and elderly into the work force while boosting the birth rate priorities, and publicly the government rules out any "immigration policy".

Still, Abe's right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, said debate on more foreign workers lay ahead.

"We are seeking to mobilize the power of women and the elderly as much as possible, but at the same time we recognize that the acceptance of foreigners is a major issue," Suga told Reuters.

He said the future debate would also consider the longer term issue of permanent residence for less skilled foreigners, but added caution was needed.

Conservatives are likely to resist major change.

For example, an ex-labor minister commenting at the LDP panel earlier on a proposal to let in foreign beauticians said the idea was fine, as long as their customers were foreign, too.

But hairdresser Mitsuo Igarashi, who has four barber chairs in his downtown Tokyo barbershop but only himself to clip and shave, wants to hire other barbers and doesn't care where they come from. "We've got to let in more foreigners," said Igarashi.

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