In Depth

Why is Japan relaxing its immigration laws?

PM Shinzo Abe wins vote on immigration reform after bitter debate in parliament

Japan’s House of Representatives has passed a long-awaited piece of legislation relaxing the country’s famously strict immigration laws.

The aim of the bill, which was forced through by the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party, is to offer low-skilled foreign workers a new type of visa.

The Ministry of Justice estimates that up to 345,000 newcomers would arrive during the programme’s first five years, on top of the 1.3 million foreign workers already in Japan.

But the passing of the bill was not unanimous. Opposition parties in the House of Representatives, led by the left-leaning Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, vehemently opposed the legislative change. The Diplomat notes that this “made for a strange scene indeed” in which “the liberal-leaning opposition is against a new immigration law, and the conservative ruling party forces it through”.

Masterminded by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the bill will now face the upper house - known as the House of Councillors - where the Liberal Democratic Party has an overwhelming majority. It may be passed as early as Friday, The Mainichi reports, to be enacted fully by April.

So what is in the bill, and why is it so controversial?

What are the current laws?

Currently, Japan's foreign workers are granted visas based on their status. The Japan Times says that they are sorted into five groups:

  1. People with “specialised knowledge and skills, including university professors and lawyers”.
  2. People staying in Japan “on the strength of their legal positions”, such as those of Japanese descent.
  3. Trainees under the Technical Intern Training Program. Foreign workers from developing countries learn skills by working at factories and farms for a certain period of time and receive remuneration. 
  4. People engaged in “specifically designated types of work for which wages are paid”, including nursing and care-worker candidates.
  5. People engaged in “activities outside their visa status” such as foreign students working part-time jobs in convenience stores and restaurants, where they are allowed to work up to 28 hours a week.
What are the proposed changes?

The Japan Times reports that Abe’s government plans to create two new visa statuses.

“The first is for foreign workers having a certain level of skill. They can stay in Japan for up to five years but will not be allowed to bring their family members,” the newspaper says. “The second is for workers with a higher level of skill who would be allowed to bring their spouses and children. If certain conditions are met, they could be permitted to live in Japan indefinitely.”

This would effectively allow around 345,150 blue-collar workers to enter Japan over five years in sectors “that are suffering from serious labor shortages” such as electronics, food production, construction and nursing, Reuters adds.

Why are they doing this?

The driving force behind the bill is Japan’s rapidly shrinking labour market.

The Wall Street Journal says that Japan’s population “shrinks by more than 300,000 a year due to a low fertility rate”, and a “tightening labor market has reduced unemployment to 2.4%”.

Age is also playing a pivotal role. The Independent reports that “Japan is already the oldest society on Earth, the oldest that has ever existed, with more than one-third of its population over the age of 60, and a median age of 46”. The bill is therefore perhaps Japan’s long-awaited admission that the country “does need more immigrants to cope with the economic impact of its ageing population”, says the site.

The new legislation is also seen as an attempt to undo “years of scandal” surrounding Japan’s third visa tier - the Technical Intern Training Programme. The Diplomat says there has been “growing awareness about the exploitation and mistreatment of foreign nationals” in the programme, which critics say is abused by some companies and serves as a cover for the use of unskilled foreign workers.

Why is there opposition?

Opponents say the bill proposal is “hasty and ill-conceived”, with no real details yet published - something that an immigration-wary country like Japan may find hard to stomach, says Reuters.

The Japan Times asks: “Is Japan focusing on accepting people with professional skills and knowledge, even those savvy enough to start venture businesses, or does Japan merely want to accept cheap labour?”

It adds that even though only 345,000 people are expected to move to Japan following the bill, the legislation is still too broad, noting that “Japanese language ability is indispensable for foreign nationals living in Japan” and should be made part of the law.

“If Japan introduces unskilled foreign workers with the myopic view of overcoming its labor shortage — a short-term problem — a new third social class made up of foreigners (after Japanese men and women) could come into being, thus increasing social discord and friction,” it says.

But writing in The Independent, economic analyst Hamish McRae says that owing to “social pressure to resist” any perceived foreign influence as part of a “wider theme in Japan of reverence for its specialness”, the law “will not change Japan”.

“The country has deemed it more important to preserve its culture and identity than to ease economic strains, and it will continue to do so,” he adds.

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