Sakanaka Essay: “A New Framework for Japan’s Immigration Policies”


Hi Blog. is proud to premiere an important essay on the future of immigration to Japan.

To tell you just how important, I turn the keyboard over to Eric Johnston. Debito

A New Framework for Japan’s Immigration Policies
By Hidenori Sakanaka,
Director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute
Former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau

Deputy Editor The Japan Times Osaka bureau

Japan’s political leaders are (yet again) making international headlines over remarks regarding past crimes ranging from the Rape of Nanking to the forced recruitment of women to serve the Japanese military as sex slaves. But the really big Japan story today is not the heated arguments over history but the far less publicized, yet far more fundamental, argument about the future. Namely, what it will mean, in a half-century from now, to be “Japanese”?

Current predictions are that, without large-scale immigration and assuming the birthrate continues to remain low, Japan’s population will shrink from the present 127 million to 100 million by 2050, and to just 64 million by 2100. The number of those considered to be of working age (15-64) is also going to decline rapidly at a time when the number of elderly is expected to skyrocket. By 2050, more than a third of the population is expected to be over 65 years old, making Japan one of, if not the oldest, countries in the world.

For the past decade, the debate about how to adjust to an aging society with fewer children has largely been conducted behind closed doors, with different ministries putting out different proposals to keep Japan economically competitive while politically influential academics slay entire forests as they propose a variety of solutions. The endless sub-committees, blue ribbon panels, white papers, “wise-men” advisory boards, and special project teams have all gone out of their way to stress the importance of raising the retirement age and providing retraining opportunities for older people, ensuring that younger Japanese are integrated into the work-force as full-time employees not as “freeters”, and making use of more robot technology to replace the ever-dwindling number of human workers.

Progressive members of the official debate have gone so far to suggest that Japan should be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 21st century by enacting official policies to make it easier for women in the workforce. Calls for better economic opportunities for women can be found in many of the reports. However, the more conservative commentators merely suggest a “better environment for women”, hinting that, while they are not against the idea of women working “certain” jobs, their primary responsibility should still be to stay at home and make babies.

And a good number have gone a step further: admitting Japan will not be able to survive without foreign labor. Various proposals, especially from Keidanren, the Justice Ministry, are now on the radar of most politicians and bureaucrats, and even the media. But given the politically explosive nature of the subject, few members of the official debate want to talk about what Japan might look like with millions and millions of foreigners.

A notable, and praiseworthy, exception is Hidenori Sakanaka. Two years ago, his book “Nyukan Senki” caused a sensation among those following the official debate over immigration. A former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, Sakanaka was a consummate insider, an elite bureaucrat who has the ear of senior bureaucrats and business leaders, and the very few ruling party politicians, like the LDP’s Taro Kono, who are thinking seriously about the future of foreigners in Japan.

In his book, Sakanaka outlined a vision of Japan in 2050, and stated what was obvious but what nobody in power dared address: Japan fundamentally faces two choices, whether to remain a “big” country by bringing in millions of foreigners or become a “small” country and admit very few. Since the publication of “Nyukan Senki”, Sakanaka has had a busy post-retirement career, traveling around the country, speaking to senior business leaders, academics, lawyers, government bureaucrats, the media, and, of course, NGOs about what he believes the Japanese government must do to ensure that, whichever path it chooses, it’s not only the right one but also the one that both protects foreigners and is practical for all concerned.

Now, for the first time, part of “Nyukan Senki” has been translated into English in the hopes that the outside world will better be able to follow, and perhaps even participate in the discussions, formal and informal, that are taking place in Japan. Readers lacking a deep familiarity with Japanese politics should understand that, within the official debate (a debate that human rights NGOs, liberal opposition politicians have little or no influence over and which foreigners are entirely absent) Sakanaka is far more concerned about the enactment of a humane but realistic immigration policy than many of the other politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and senior corporate leaders with similar levels of political clout.

In the end, Japan’s debate over its future must involve serious discussion and sound policy decisions regarding foreign immigrant labor. There is a tendency among far too many people with far too much to hide to claim that “Japan’s debate on its immigration policies is a domestic, not an international issue.” This kind of denial, blindness and self-delusion is responsible for Japan’s inability to face up to its past, which is dangerous enough. But how more dangerous will it be in the future for not only Japan but all those from outside Japan who immigrate?

Happily, Sakanaka-san is determined to do his part to ensure that when politicians and bureaucrats speak of the need of a “national debate” or “national consensus” on the issue of foreign labor, they will be forced to open their closed doors to as many voices, from within Japan and without, as possible.

(Note: The opinions contained within are those of Eric Johnston and do not necessarily reflect those of The Japan Times.)

Now go on to read Sakanaka’s essay at

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