Q: A recent immigration issue in Japan is controversy over the new immigration law due to take effect in April, which will bring in 345,000 foreigners over five years to work in certain occupations such as construction, food service, and home-visit care for the elderly. What do you see as the pros and cons of the law?
Debito: I’m going to take a wait-and-see attitude on it. The government of Prime Minister Abe, by introducing the new law, is acknowledging the fact that Japan needs to bring in foreign labor. There’s no other way to get around the current demographic crisis; the ageing population plus low birth rate means there aren’t enough people to pay the taxes and do the “dirty work” that most Japanese don’t want to do. But, as usual, it’s arranged so as not to allow these people to settle and invest in Japanese society. Over time, many entrants will surely gain a better understanding and appreciation of Japan, so they should be allowed to make a real contribution to Japanese society for their entire lives if they so choose.
Depriving them of that opportunity because they are essentially seen as temporary labor on revolving-door visas (if longer-term, this time) is basically the same mistake that has been made with the trainee / intern visa system Japan has had for more than two decades now. One wonders if Japan’s ruling elite is ever going to learn its lesson about giving quid pro quo to people who have made their investments into this society. If you stay here, learn the language, pay your taxes, and contribute to the workforce, sooner or later you should be allowed to stay permanently. But that’s not implicitly promised even in these new visas.
There has really never been a true “immigration policy”, one of making foreigners into Japanese, in Japan to this day. We don’t just need a temporary migrant labor policy. Bringing in more people in and of itself is not a viable solution to the demographic crisis. The solution is incentivizing them to stay and to become Japanese.