- - Sunday, November 25, 2018


Japan is about to take its most culture-altering step since Gen. Douglas MacArthur restructured Japanese society in the wake of World War II. With no apparent alternative to sustain the highly-skilled workforce that is the key to a successful economy, the Japanese are moving ahead with a scheme to import foreign workers, some of them to stay permanently.

Japan’s tightly organized population is aging faster than that of any other nation. Current predictions are that the nation’s population will decline from the current 126 million to about 87 million over the next four decades. Japan has never welcomed foreign emigrants and its rigid and unique social structure makes it difficult for newcomers to assimilate.

But the Japanese government believes it is forced to accept foreigners as workers even to the point of enabling some of them to become citizens, or watch its way of life suffer. Since Japan has the world’s third-largest economy, with an aging and rapidly shrinking population, the economic repercussions of transformation will be dramatic not only for Japan but for the global economy as well.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to attract hundreds of thousands of these foreign workers over the next five years to prevent a catastrophic population decline that would in turn produce a significant labor shortage.

Many Japanese are nevertheless not persuaded that opening Japan to so many foreign workers is the best solution to a looming labor shortage that no one can deny. Mr. Abe wants to end a decade-long debate about it, but six major opposition parties in the Diet, or parliament, are determined to block his legislation. The government has so far declined to release estimates of the number of foreigners who would be allowed into the country.

The government bars unskilled foreign workers from taking jobs in Japan now. Under the Abe scheme, working visas would be issued only to foreign applicants with “a certain skill” to work in 14 selected industries, including construction and farming.

The latest estimate, now 4 years old, sets out that there were 2,121,831 foreigners residing in Japan, 677,019 of whom were long-term residents. By one comparison, Britain, with just half the population of Japan, has 6.2 million foreign residents against just over 2 million in Japan. Vietnamese nationals make up the largest proportion of new foreign residents, with significant numbers of Nepalese, Filipinos, Chinese and Taiwanese. Most of them can remain in Japan only for a maximum of five years. Many of them entered the country to complete trainee programs.

The number of Japanese older than 65 has doubled over the past quarter of a century, from 7.1 percent of the population in 1970 to 14.1 percent in 1994. An increase of this size required 61 years to accomplish in Italy, 85 years in Sweden and 115 years in France.

Despite strong opposition, more than 345,000 blue-collar foreign laborers are expected to enter Japan over the next five years, but expectations differ sharply over who they are and who they can become. Some businesses consider them temporary workers, and others see them as having the potential to become more versatile employees and even Japanese citizens.

In the restaurant industry, which is projected to take in around 41,000 to 53,000 laborers, major companies have re-emphasized a willingness to embrace foreign workers. In the nursing-care sector, which would absorb 50,000 to 60,000 new workers, the largest share of new laborers, it’s clear that Japanese labor is growing short.

Nevertheless, the controversy of the Abe scheme reflects fears in other parts of the world, including the United States, that a dramatic increase in foreign arrivals will alter the culture. Hiromi Ogata, a government official in a province far from Tokyo, warns that this will complicate the shortage of labor. “Taking foreign workers will not create a paradise. It will a take long time for such systems to become accepted in Japan.”

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