Why does Japan need more foreigners again?

The health and labor ministry’s White Paper on the Labor Economy (link) came out last month. It’s stuffed with statistics, but today I would like to focus on what it’s got to say about Japan’s foreign workforce, and then think about what implications a major increase in the amount of foreign workers would have on the Japanese economy.

  • At the end of FY2006, there were 755,000 legal foreign workers in Japan, double the 370,000 in 1996 (A recent NYT article claims it’s actually “more than a million” in 2006 vs. 700,000 in 1996 but the author does not cite where he got that number… UPDATE: it appears to include the number of foreign spouse visas, which can be found at the justice ministry (PDF)). 180,000 are on “professional” visas and work as engineers, programmers and other specialized fields (This number includes 57,000 here on language teacher visas cultural/humanities visas (I am interested to see what the impact from NOVA’s closing has had on this number…) and 35,000 on technical/engineer visas). There are 35,000 Nikkei Brazilians working in factories, etc. 95,000 are here on the controversial technical trainee program. A whopping 110,000 foreign students are working part-time (15% of all foreign workers in Japan and 90% (!) of all foreign students).
  • The report points out that Japan’s rules on letting in foreign labor are actually quite liberal in the cultural cultural/humanities (mainly language teacher) and technical (engineer/programmer) categories. 62% work at companies with less than 300 employees, and 45% are non-permanent. 64.8% make an underwhelming 200,000-299,999 yen per month. 61% of technical visas go to “data processors” while 58.8% of cultural visa holders are language teachers or otherwise in education, leading the report to conclude that the country is not utilizing specialized foreign labor in core corporate activities such as development, design, and international trade.
  • The ministry plans to promote a system to facilitate permanent employment for foreign students after they graduate. A survey of companies found that the biggest reason that foreign students in Japan did not seek jobs was “limitations for foreigners to succeed in a Japanese company” (34.5%). On the other hand, companies surveyed cited a “lack of internal infrastructure (communication issues, etc.)” (44.9%) and a general “negative [stance toward] hiring foreigners” (43.8%) as reasons why they did not hire foreigners. Such companies’ views of foreigners included “strong self-expression” (42.6%) and a lack of “loyalty” (29.4%). Of the mere 10% of companies with experience hiring at least one foreigner, 80% said they would continue to hire foreigners in the future.
  • Ironically enough, two thirds of foreign students study humanities or social sciences, while two thirds of the labor demand from firms is in the hard sciences and engineering.
  • Citing larger numbers of foreign laborers as necessary to “bring vitality and internationalization to the Japanese economy,” the report calls on companies to reform their attitudes towards hiring foreigners and the structure of their labor management systems, and colleges to attract more foreign students based on companies’ needs.

In previous discussions on this blog and elsewhere, a general consensus seems to form around the basic lines of the above-mentioned NYT article:

With Japan’s population projected to decline steeply over the next decades, the failure to secure a steady work force could harm the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.

… experts say that it will have to increase by significantly more to make up for the expected decline in the Japanese population.

I very rarely see an argument in the J-blogosphere to contradict this idea that Japan’s shrinking, aging population is destined to doom economic growth, bankrupt social services, and quite possibly cause social turmoil. Therefore, goes the argument, this situation must be avoided or alleviated by any means – encouraging people to have more children, employing the elderly, and last but not least bringing in more and more foreign workers.

Dean Baker, a liberal-leaning US economist, is critical of this approach:

The focus of the article is a village where Chinese workers are brought in to pick lettuce. Presumably, farmers would have to pay much higher wages to get Japanese workers to pick their lettuce. This could make lettuce growing unprofitable in Japan. The result would be that the land would be used to grow other crops, or it could even be left available for other uses. Since most farming is heavily subsidized in Japan, if land was pulled out of agricultural production, it could mean substantial savings to the government.

One of the other potential problem mentioned in this article is that a chain restaurant may be forced to cut back on its plan to triple its number of stores because it can’t get enough workers.

These are useful examples for showing why a declining population does not pose an economic problem. Japan has no special interest in maintaining its lettuce production, if it proves not to be an economically viable sector. If farmers cannot make a profit paying the prevailing wage to grow lettuce, then there is no obvious loss to the country if the lettuce industry is allowed to disappear. Similarly, Japan has no special interest in seeing this restaurant chain triple in size if the market conditions will not support this growth.

In the Nikkei Shimbun’s Economics Classroom (Keizai Kyoshitsu) column, Mieko Nishimizu, a former vice president of the World Bankand current fellow at a METI think tank, takes this basic line of argument into more detail as she outlines proposals to turn Japan’s demographic crisis into an opportunity to improve the lives of the citizenry. She sees three basic “silver linings” to Japan’s declining population:

  1. Progress in “capital aggregation” will dramatically boost productivity. Labor shortages will put pressure on producers to get more output from each employee. If the producers cannot count on foreign labor to fill that gap, all the better for Japan’s productivity growth. That growth, she says, will come from Japan’s advanced robotics technology as well as scientific and information advances. Knowledge industries will become an important source of economic growth.
  2. The nation will respect its older citizens more. Those over 60 will be seen as vaults of knowledge and experience, elements critical to knowledge based industries. Such pressures will likely end Japan’s system of retirement at a fixed age (65 now). The freedom to work will give the elderly the chance to choose when they want to retire, and those extra productive years will alleviate overall social security expenditures. For this to work in an era of advanced life expectancy, medical technology has to be ready to make those later years more livable, in a manner that’s fairly available to all citizens.
  3. Out of necessity, women will be required to balance work and child-rearing (no mention of men’s role in child-rearing in this essay). But that means Japan will finally need its women to work. If Japan can be a nation where women can exert leadership in companies with flexible management, competition for good talent will break all glass ceilings. In part to facilitate women’s participation in the workplace, companies will grow ever more eager to achieve employee satisfaction, by allowing more family time and permitting telecommuting. She cites studies that a happy home life leads to a more productive workforce. And happier home lives might just produce more children.

As she mentions in passing early in the piece, the implications of this scenario are that immigration as a supplement to the work shortage would just get in the way. To Nishimizu, hastily letting in immigrants poses “more than just an lost opportunity for Japan to make great strides, it would produce immeasurable costs.”

The point of managing an economy is to improve quality of life, she says, not to pursue a certain population number. The important thing is to work toward a society where people feel secure about the future. This will produce a justified feeling of belonging and work to stabilize the country.

To have a successful immigration policy, Nishimizu argues, Japan will first of all need to work toward improving quality of life. But Japan also must be ready to open up, to share its culture in a broader sense. Without that, newcomers will have no incentive for them to develop a feeling of “belonging” to their adopted home. They’ll just feel like unwelcome outsiders. But the desire to get a piece of Japan’s wealth will inspire more people to take citizenship and provide a long-term contribution to society.

Baker and Nishimizu argue that we should be a little concerned about the population decline, but let’s not panic and do anything rash. What are some of the doomsday scenarios of a 20-30% decline in population? Sure we might have to live with one Yoshinoya for every 126,000 people instead of every 42,000. And we might have to start consoldating the dozens of tiny, unproductive businesses that scatter Japan. But why not focus on fixing the problems instead of doing the same old thing again and again?

58 thoughts on “Why does Japan need more foreigners again?”

  1. (A recent NYT article claims it’s actually “more than a million” in 2006 vs. 700,000 in 1996 but the author does not cite where he got that number…).

    Does the figure include non-work visas, such as persons such as yourself on spouse visas? That seems the most likely cause of the disparity to me.

  2. I can’t tell if your numbers include the “trainees” which are the main subject of the NYT article that inspired your piece.

  3. Adam –

    I am confused. How exactly does Dr. Baker think lettuce gets on his table in Washington?

    Lucky him, living in a country where all the nannies, janitors, cleaning ladies and lettuce pickers are properly remunerated fellow nationals. And where the elderly poor and high school students are not actively recruited by national retail chains as the cheapest of cheap labor.

    As for the assertions of Ms. Shimizu, is it not true that:

    1) capital is mobile and information is expensive? When a capitalist has to choose between a) shifting production to Vietnam, b) shutting down production and c) buying a robot…how much do you want to bet on the capitalist’s buying a robot?

    2) forcing senior citizens to work is a weird way to show them respect (“Retirement: the worst thing that will ever happen to you, honest.”) and

    3) in a labor shortage all wages rise, not just the wages of women? Also, in an advanced industrial economy, do not wage rises happen first and fastest in the lowest paid and lowest status sectors?

    I need explained to me, in simple terms, so that I can understand, how a higher per hour wage for Yoshinoya’s nightowl shift will necessarily improve the status of women in Japanese society.

  4. Great stuff.

    Did you guys see this? –


    Very insightful outline of the two major choices facing Japan. It makes the `declining population, streamlined, happy Japan` look attractive (without an ounce of jingoism).

    Certain commentators in the English-speaking world have played up the “few immigrants = Japanese discrimination” idea, but the alternative needs to be considered as legitimate and discussed. When one looks at other developed countries, it often appears that immigrants are being brought in to fill crappy jobs in an attempt to raise GDP a bit. That leaves the question, of course, “raise it for whom?”

  5. Sakanaka was often a target of scorn for the overseas media when he was head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau which indicated that they had just as much of a deaf ear for the nuances of the immigration debate as the local media. The Philippine press claimed he was “an isolationist who has long advocated expulsion of foreigners” when he oversaw the cutback on entertainer visas. They also claimed that “he wrote a treatise on it ten years ago in defiance of globalization”. Since it’s unlikely a foreign correspondent would be able to dig up details of such a treatise, that was either a lie or information leaked by Sakanaka’s domestic enemies.

    A lot of commentators seem to wish to interpret any new legislation affecting foreign residents in Japan as xenophobic but that may well be jumping to the wrong conclusions. Apologies for quoting myself, but I wrote this elsewhere:

    “Tightening border entry controls, cutting back on those entertainer visas which relied on the authentication of an overseas government, unifying student visas, lengthening the term limits of work and spouse visas, easing permanent residence requirements, clarifying the status of trainee worker programmes, prosecuting marriage brokers and moving foreign registration from the local to the national level are all measures you would consider taking if your aim was simply to reduce illegal immigration. However, they are also measures you might put in place if you aimed to increase the total number of immigrants and wanted to ensure that you had the necessary administrative apparatus in place.”

    The loudest advocates of a more liberal immigration policy are probably corporate interests. It’s regularly assumed that the biggest opponents are one-nation isolationists which is probably why the debate seems framed in the way that Adamu describes above. There is also, however, quite an active discussion taking place among consumer groups and labour unions who are less directly interested in the composition of the population but are concerned about the social contract between employee-employer and also customer-corporation. The immigration debate impacts directly on this. The corporations who want access to a bigger labour pool are the same ones who stand accused of not sharing the recovery in profits with their existing employees. They also stand accused of cutting corners and short-changing consumers.

  6. I doubt whether we need foreigners supporting Yoshinoya’s expansion (as much as I love the food) when there are clearly more worthy sectors of the economy. All of Yoshinoya’s foreign employees are foreign students. Why do they get blanket permission to work? Is it impolite to ask whether the work permit could actually be more valuable to these students than the education they’re getting?

    No amount of economic circumstances will “necessarily” result in this or that policy, but a “labor shortage” does provide incentives for women to work, for example. The seemingly natural developments described by Nishimizu are actually policy goals that will no doubt require hard work and determination (which are in even shorter supply than unskilled labor!).

    Interestingly, Sakanaka is the “mastermind” behind the LDP’s recent proposal for Japan to import 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years:

    While establishing an environment to encourage women to continue to work while rearing children is important to counter the expected labor shortage, bringing in foreign workers is the best solution for immediate effect, said the plan’s mastermind, Hidenori Sakanaka, director general of the private think tank Japan Immigration Policy Institute.

    “We will train immigrants and make sure they get jobs and their families have decent lives,” Sakanaka said in explaining the major difference between the new plan and current immigration policy. “We will take care of their lives, as opposed to the current policy, in which we demand only highly skilled foreigners or accept foreigners only for a few years to engage in simple labor.”

    He seems to have reversed himself from the position outlined in his book, which seemed to favor a decreased population and limiting immigration to “emergency” sectors only in an environment that can accept them as members of society. Of course, he did worry about “government inaction and the postponement of reform” as factors that could lead to a poorly executed “Small Option” immigration policy. He must have made a political decision that the time was right to work with the reformist faction of the LDP on a concrete plan.

    It’s not an either-or supposition – the immigrants are already here, the pressures from surrounding populous nations will continue to grow. But we need to admit (1) Japan needs to settle in for a relative decline in economic power, even if it brought in 20 million immigrants; and (2) Japan is currently poorly prepared for an immigrant population.

  7. I would also note that these “language teacher” visas of which you speak are actually “humanities” visas and are used by MANY professionals who are not language teachers, Curzon and I being two of them (the “legal/accounting services” status is not available unless you have a Japanese state license of some sort).

  8. More opportunity for women than foreigners argument is almost 20 years old.I’ve heard that one from Nishibe Susumu in Asa Made Nama Televi on Asahi TV.

    “The loudest advocates of a more liberal immigration policy are probably corporate interests.”

    Indeed,It was nobody but Toyota CEO Okuda Hiroshi pushing this agenda when he was president of Keidanren few years ago.
    Here in Nagoya,I heard an information from one of my colleague that Toyota can no longer afford hiring Brazillian in their subsidiaies.thus seeking to hire trainee from China.

    “1) Japan needs to settle in for a relative decline in economic power, even if it brought in 20 million immigrants”
    I think more immigrnats are needed in service sectors and not manuafacture,Japan is shifting more to investment than export based economy.

    “and (2) Japan is currently poorly prepared for an immigrant population.”
    I think we need at least one generation of immigrants coming in to the society by getting married to Japanese nationals.

  9. “I think we need at least one generation of immigrants coming in to the society by getting married to Japanese nationals.”

    I recall how Joe mentioned in the previous post how anyone with a recognized sex change can now change their gender on the family register which, presumably, would allow them to marry. Perhaps Mutant Frog is trying to send foreign men a subliminal warning that the sweet Ayumi who you are thinking of marrying might have been called Hiroshi originally. All part of a Government plan to attract immigrants while limiting the troubling consequences of too many hafu children. Herodotus tells us of a precedent in his Histories. Alexander, then prince of Macedonia, found some “beardless youths” to dress as women to entertain visiting Persians and save the local girls. One small downer in that story: when the Persians “began to be rude”, the Macedonian “girls” immediately “despatched them with their daggers.

  10. Haha.
    Funny,you are mentioning Alexander,Mulboyne.
    I’m currently reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and actually thinking about Alexander when I wrote that.You know Alexander had encouraged his fellow macedonian bumpkins to marry with foreigners so that would help his empire more cosmopolitan,right?

    I think international marriage couples would make social buffer for upcoming waves of immigrants.I know my seven years old nephew won’t find any trouble of having foreign kid sit right next to him in the class,since he is accustomed to play with foreigner by being with his Mongolian cousin,which is my son.
    You can’t break people’s idea on the society until they actually experience through daily lives.Every year,about 15% newly wed couple are of international marriage.I think that helps a lot to shape the society into multi-ethnic.

  11. I think that the Alexander in Herodotus is Alexander the Great`s grandfather…. I also think that immigrants in Nashville should learn English….

    I agree completely with the idea that international marriages (and assimilation by some groups that actually do it like Indians) are going to change Japan. Before my generation, grade school classes where I am from would have been 100% white. My class was more like 75%. It makes a big difference when you grow up taking heterogeneity for granted. I`ve seen the same thing operating in a Japanese class that I did some English volunteer lessons. 2 half American half Japanese kids, one Chinese, one Korean, one Indian out of 30 or so. The Indian kid seemed like he was the gaki taisho. This is especially going to be a big deal in inaka areas were farmers taking foreign brides are going to change the dynamic. These areas may even become the model while Tokyo becomes the abrasive basket-case exception.

    “It’s not an either-or supposition – the immigrants are already here.”

    I thnk that the either-or is really a choice between going with the flow on the current marriage trend and expanding immigration a bit (only the far, far right would be talking about kicking out the foreigners who are already here and most of them are not taking up the issue as I understand it). This would probably result in 5-7,000,000 foreign born residents by 2050 according to numbers that I have seen. Lots of “half” kids as well. The other option that people are talking about would see 20-30,000,000 foreign born residents by mid-century. This option seems a bit scary. The 5-7,000,000 number would be people married to Japanese, immigrants selected for good reasons (demand for skills), etc. The 20-30,000,000 would be a crazy rush – immigrants being exploited by companies, living 15-20 to an apartment, moving overwhelmingly to Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, no roots, etc.

    Aceface is correct that the service industry is probably where immigrants are going to go. Manufacturing will not be a major growth area in Japan unless something crazy happens. Increases in productivity will probably be maintained by new technologies. Service, however, is in a race to the bottom in the wage area. I saw an ad for “home helpers” for the elderly in the local Recruit magazine. The salary starts at 140,000 (yen, a month) which is very low for such physically and emotionally demanding work. With prices on the rise, are immigrants even going to be able to survive in Japan on service job wages?

  12. “You know Alexander had encouraged his fellow macedonian bumpkins to marry with foreigners so that would help his empire more cosmopolitan”

    Well, he was trying to expand his empire rapidly at the time so he had a number of incentives there.

    Herodotus also wrote about one Lydian custom where young unmarried girls would routinely prostitute themselves to raise money to prepare for marriage. I immediately thought of that when I first heard about enjo kosai.

    International marriages ought to have an impact but there are just as many differences as similarities among nations who have seen large scale immigration so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about what the nature of the impact will be. Your nephew might not be surprised to see some strange faces in his class or strange names on the school roster but a recent J-Cast article wondered if kids like him might develop an inferiority complex if their peer group was increasingly bilingual.

    Not related to intermarriage but I’m always struck by the number of reports suggesting the children of Brazilian immigrants have poor language skills. This seems odd: in other countries, the kids are usually far better than their parents to the extent that the phenomenon of “immigrant children mediators” is very common. I suspect the reports mean literacy more than speaking skills but, even so, I wonder whether this gap is being exaggerated.

    We ought to be in a better position to answer questions like this in the future. One effect of the increased interest in the question of immigration is that we are developing a better understanding of what foreigners get up to in Japan because of all the new data being collected.

  13. The problem with the productivity argument is that in my experience most major Japanese companies don’t care about productivity. In fact, based on my personal experience, I suspect they actually prefer employees who are less productive by Western standards, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to continue employing so many superfluous staff.

  14. Wow lots of off-putting comparisons to ancient Rome! Where is this coming from?

    It would be truly amazing if the second-generation Brazilians somehow grew up speaking either no or very limited Japanese. The issue is they can’t read or write kanji. But a Japan with 10 million immigrants will at some point come under pressure to give up kanji in its current form. And that is just the sort of wedge issue that could throw a monkey wrench in the whole exercise, especially in an era of English-only stock listings, English-only experimental schools, and all-Indian IT teams. We might see a movie called 日本語沈没

    On a larger level, I have an non-rhetorical question: how many of these immigrants are expected to arrive single and eventually decide to have a family with a Japanese person? I saw (via the Terrie’s Take mailing list) that the Indonesian nurse program wouldn’t allow male applicants. Terrie saw this as some kind of backhanded baby-making scam by the foreign ministry, but I doubt whether the government is considering its trade agreements as a way to get into the mail-order bride business.

    So far I want to identify two conclusions, more for the sake of argument than as my own actual opinions:

    1) In terms of mainstream argument (ie: the formal conclusion of an LDP study group), the question of whether Japan needs more immigrants is more or less resolved. The question is now how many and how to do it. An important caveat is that this is merely the conclusion of a group of intellectuals and politicians and has yet to be tested in real public debate (the wishy-washy Nikkei editorial that MTC so artfully destroyed last month is probably a sign of what to expect down the road).

    (I guess this leads to the question of which programs the government plans to prioritize – legalizing trainees? expanding the number of students? even more language teachers? more nurses? more foreign spouses for farming villages? all of the above or even more than the above? )

    2) The NYT-style reasoning is woefully simplistic and leads to sweeping calls for “crazy rushes” of 20 million immigrants.

    When thinking about the huge numbers cited by some, I think it’s important to note another factor driving the boosters of Big Option immigration policy – those “experts” mentioned in the NYT who worry about Japan’s “long-term economic competitiveness.”

    Just days after Nishimizu’s article, Keizai Kyoshitsu featured Hitsoshi Tanaka, a retired diplomat. He argued that economic growth is the “only path” for Japan in an uneasy geopolitical environment. By this reasoning, Japan needs to maintain or grow its absolute economic strength in order to limit its relative decline against elements such as China.

    Tanaka doesn’t mention immigration (he’s more interested in overall strategic issues such as rejecting calls to bring BRICs nations into the G8), but his implication is clear enough.

    I won’t pretend to refute him in a single line, but personally I don’t see a shrinking population bringing Japan to Korean-level vulnerability. But right or wrong, it’s clearly a palatable idea to the extent that the NYT recites it as if it were common sense.

  15. I think that Terry is wrong – they showed the first of the Indonesian applicants arriving in Japan for a press tour on TV the other day and about half were men.

    As for the Latin Americans – I think that there is a concern that parents are keeping their children out of school and that they are growing up without Japanese or being able to read their native language either.

    “On a larger level, I have an non-rhetorical question: how many of these immigrants are expected to arrive single and eventually decide to have a family with a Japanese person?”

    Far more marriages between Japanese men and foreign women than Japanese women and foreign men. Chinese, Filipinos, etc. have the highest numbers. Many of these women are being introduced through “services” of various kinds. I have no problem with this kind of thing if both parties know what they are getting into and reasonable support networks are in place if things don`t work out. This should be a major source of foreign born residents for the near future.

    Japan may have about 1,000,000 foreign workers but, at present, it is sort of a revolving door – people come for a few years and go (usually because of visa status or because that was their intent in the first place; Nikkeijin seem to be an exception). Some will marry and stay, however, and hopefuly move up into better jobs while new immigrants come in at the ground level.

    There are also couples that meet abroad, etc. and decide to live in Japan.

    Since all of these three scenarios are getting more common, it should continue to add greatly to the foreign born population and number of “half” children, even if labor-based immigration does not increase a great deal.

    As for the points for debate, I think that we should start operating on the assumption that the LDP is going to get $hitcanned in the next election. Shukan Asahi has a very detailed feature on this in their latest issue. Even if the dismal cabinet ratings are turned around, I fail to see how the government is going to mangage to do something about the economy and rising prices in time. The LDP are stuck, really. After such a long period of deflation, Japanese voters have come to take it as normal. Despite the fact that Japanese inflation rates this year are low compared to, say, Canada, Japanese voters are now judging the government (according to recent polls) on their ability to take care of a problem that could only realistically be taken care of with intrusive socialism. That pretty much means that, barring some Koizumi-esque tomfoolery, the LDP is screwed. I feel, however, that the DPJ will probably come in and `re-study` the immigration issue and come to the same issue – after one or more years of paralysis.

    Your China point is a very good one – hopefuly, however, the level of international engagement that we are seeing with the Olympics at present will be China`s way forward. If that is the case, a shrinking Japan could be an Asian-Canada to China`s Asian-USA. In any other scenario, it is unlikely that Japan is simply going to be able to `grow` itself out of trouble.

  16. The discussion about accepting Indonesian nurses and caregivers has taken a couple of interesting turns. Initially bureaucrats were very reluctant to put it on the table because they thought that Japan’s elderly population would be the least accepting of foreign workers. They eventually acceded as part of broader trade agreements. A deal was agreed initially with the Philippines and they should have been the first to hit the shores (probably with a higher proportion of women) but the package was held up by the Philippine senate who didn’t like provisions that seemed to allow Japan to dump toxic waste in their country. Consequently, the Indonesians arrived first.

    If the contingent from the Philippines had arrived first, it probably would have been a full complement. Although they have less than half the population of Indonesia, they have a larger number of Japanese speakers and people who have worked in Japan. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to argue, as the Shukan Post did, that thousands of former prostitutes as hostesses will be lining up for the jobs. Nevertheless, it was to be the Indonesians and, the issue of the male nurses aside, it quickly became apparent that the initial quota wouldn’t be filled.

    This came as a shock. The Government had established strict criteria for the nurses and caregivers but were still under the impression that the visas they were offering were the equivalent of winning lottery tickets. A number of reports began to appear which suggested that bar was being set too high. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that Japanese people who believe their language is hard for foreigners to learn should feel that it would be difficult for the newcomers to reach sufficient proficiency to pass an exam that already has a high domestic failure rate.

    The government has since announced it will consider relaxing the criteria. Currently nurses and caregivers who fail the exam at the first attempt have to leave but they may yet be allowed to stay and retake it. In the media, at least, the debate has therefore completely changed. Allowing foreign nurses and caregivers into Japan was originally a concession grudgingly offered to strike a bilateral trade deal. Strict conditions were established to “limit the damage” and there were some complaints about “foreigners taking our jobs” which you hear in a number of countries. We are now in a position where the discussion is more about how to encourage foreigners to come, and then make sure they stay, to help solve a chronic labour shortage.

    This volte-face is not just down to the quirk of the Indonesians arriving first but it certainly gave proponents of immigration an opportunity to swing the argument their way.

    M-Bone is right to bring up rising prices. One factor behind the spate of corporate scandals, including several in the food industry, was the growing gap between the service and quality consumers expected and the price they wanted to pay. Unable to pass on cost increases, many companies decided instead to cut corners fraudulently or to postpone essential maintenance work. What companies are really saying now to their customers is: if you want a high level of service then we need cheap, legal labour. If you won’t take low wages, we need immigrants. This also represents a counterargument to those who favour restricting immigration and who believe Japan can instead be a smaller economy with a high standard of living. Companies are saying that, without cheap labour, high quality services will increasingly come at a price which only the wealthy can afford.

    As far as intermarriage goes, as M-Bone also notes, the statistics indicate that the majority are between foreign women and Japanese men. Which makes it strange that the J-Cast article I mentioned earlier thinks the more important trend is rich white guys and Japanese women:


    Incidentally, another area which might be worth mentioning is the Government’s new target for foreign visitors. There were 8.35 million in 2007 against a target of 10 million by 2010. The new target is 20 million by 2020. Wider immigration has greater implications but Japan would undoubtedly also see some changes if that target was ever achieved.

  17. “pass an exam that already has a high domestic failure rate.”

    I think that the Japanese media needs to be far more critical about this one. I hear that the failure rate is something around 50% but how many of those fails would be people who didn`t study taking it for the hell of it to see if they can get lucky and pass? Similar points have been made about TOEFL in Japan – average scores are dramatically lowered by habitual takers trying to get lucky. I wonder if the caregiver test is really “hard” at all. 50% pass rate seems a bit humane for a Japanese qualification.

    “target was ever achieved.”

    I think that the target is likely to be reached, not by anything that Japan can do (aside from some advertising, signs in Chinese, etc.) but simply because Japan`s neighbours are getting rich enough to travel. That, and the legit interest of East Asian young people in things Japanes.

    Someone once joked that Americans should have to take a “test” vacation to Hawaii before they are certified to go to Europe. For Chinese, it seems to be going Hong Kong -> Japan or Korea -> Europe.

  18. Great points Mulboyne… we see too little straightforward “What companies are really saying” type of analysis. It’s strange because after hearing it come from you it sounds so obvious. I guess people who can offer that dont usually post their thoughts for free on blog comment sections.

    There was a recent episode of Gaia no Yoake (an excellent Nikkei-produced documentary series hosted by the lawyer from Sore demo Boku wa Yattenai) about the woes of the restaurant industry’s employment situation. They noted that the most successful new izakaya chains rely almost exclusively on Chinese student labor and trade some of the service level (waitresses that speak with an accent, for one) for shockingly low prices (basically salarymen can eat their fill AND get drunk for around 2000 yen apiece). But even these are finding it hard to satisfy investors due to a “labor shortage.”

    I am not buying it. Startup companies might be struggling with innovative but untested business models, but if I may generalize a bit, Japan’s companies have been ultra-profitable over the past few years. Free of the debts that plagued them during the 90s, they are paying record dividends to investors and sitting on piles of cash. Unless the sectors benefiting from immigration have been completely left out of the recent boom, their corner-cutting and wage-slashing ways must be geared at boosting margins to fund their dividend payments rather than a struggle to keep their heads above water.

    I would love to see quotes from people who are “shocked” that the treaty-mandated quota wasn’t met. I thought the whole point of this plan was for it not to work. I mean, the nurses, already qualified in their home countries, have to pass a test in Japanese. This requires them to acquire native-level kanji ability in three years. That’s like saying “sure, you can work as a nurse in this country, but let’s see you learn to ride a unicycle first.” I see what you are saying – getting the government to loosen the standards even a little bit is progress, and perhaps these nurse programs are a proxy for the overall debate on immigration – but the whole idea is still kind of ridiculous.

  19. “I mean, the nurses, already qualified in their home countries, have to pass a test in Japanese. This requires them to acquire native-level kanji ability in three years. That’s like saying “sure, you can work as a nurse in this country, but let’s see you learn to ride a unicycle first.””

    Isn`t it more like saying that if you want to work in a Japanese hospital, you should be able to read the labels on medicine and the patient`s chart so you don`t kill anybody?

    The goal for a 6 month Japanese language intensive is Level 2. I don`t think that it is crazy to expect more after language training and another 2 or more years in country.

    90% for Kangoshi is a surprise. I think that the 50% that I saw is for caregivers for the elderly which is likely low due to people taking the test just because they can.

  20. “you should be able to read the labels ”

    Obviously yes. But it just goes to show that the infrastructure is not in place to allow for much foreign participation. I’ll say it again – kanji pose a significant barrier. Why not just make all the labels bilingual (i.e. in Indonesian/Tagalog/Chinese) or include the readings using furigana? Why not give the tests in other languages or using furigana? If the compromises that Mulboyne noted are indeed moving in the direction of making this program a success, then these sorts of adjustments will also need to be considered.

  21. Furigana are a good idea.

    I tend to think that kanji are also excellent for medicines, however. When you see the kanji, you can tell exactly what the medicine will do in most cases. Furigana are uncertain as there are many similar sounds in Japanese.

    Also, you are not just talking about bilingual labels. What do you do in a hospital that has nurses who speak 17 different languages? Prepare different labels for individual nurses? That could be the future, I guess. The potential for mixups and mislabeling is amazing.

    If Japan is going to be managed into a multi-cultural era, the authorities must take care to avoid a backlash. Dumbing down Japanese or going too far toward facilitating a multi-lingual enviornment could spark one. If one person dies as a result of a misread label, that could be it. One of the advantages of the “small immigration” argument is that resources could be focused into language training and aiding with assimilation. That could do a lot to prevent friction.

    A strong case can be made that if an individual can`t learn to read Japanese during a three year internship (which includes paid language training), they would be better off finding someone who can. Its not like the authorities are just plopping them down in Japan and telling them “good luck learning Japanese” or anything.

    I don`t really have doubts about this system, actually. South East Asians have a reputation for working extremely hard and assimilating so if the screening is effective, Japan should land the excellent human resources that hospitals and care facilities are looking for. Those tests are multiple choice, right? Not that hard to interpret and apply one`s expertise if their Japanese level is decent – does not need to be outstanding or anything. Chinese students in one year intensives are getting to the level where they can pass the entrance exams of Japan`s top universities all in Japanese. That is outstanding but the nurses can get by with a lot less.

  22. You don’t need native-level kanji ability to pass a professional exam in Japanese — just knowledge of grammar, basic vocabulary and the relevant technical terms. Put another way, it’s 2kyu plus a specialist lexicon. Certainly nothing a halfway intelligent person couldn’t learn in 3 years of study (especially if they studied Chinese before).

    Anyway, we shouldn’t expect internationalization to kill the kanji system. The written language would be the last refuge of the natives to keep garden-variety immigrants out of selected affairs… I suspect it would be very carefully guarded.

  23. Is Japanese society so conservative that it is unable to have the sort of fundamental debate over its writing system that occurred in the Meiji era?

    OK maybe it is.

    But considering that the inventor of the “Small Option” concept seems to define small as 10 million people in 50 years, I wonder if all these new people will be able to keep up even with the pretty low “2kyu plus” requirements, especially when their job qualifications don’t depend on it.

    If not, it only follows that this policy will hit a wall.

    The idea of asking for such a commitment from 10 million people really underscores the need to actually *attract* immigrants here instead of just assuming that they will come if you open up a quota. If these Indonesian nurses become wildly successful it would be an enormous PR gain for the opportunities Japan can provide those who arrive on its shores, but I am not holding my breath.

  24. “Is Japanese society so conservative that it is unable to have the sort of fundamental debate over its writing system that occurred in the Meiji era?”

    Japan didn`t just have a debate over getting rid of kanji in the Meiji period, there was discussion of getting rid of the JAPANESE LANGUAGE in favor of English. These debates were not rooted in a reaction against conservative thought or anything – they were a result of Japan`s vulnerability and a desperate attempt to get strong enough to defend its interests.

    Reducing emphasis on Kanji could very well produce an underclass that can`t read it and an elite that can. “Good” Japanese literature, for example, can`t be read without Kanji. There are exotic and classical compounds in Mishima`s novels that, if rendered into hiragana, would be incomprehensible. Looking them up would result in streams of possibilities. Kanji are really integral to “Japan” as a network of cultural traditions and I don`t think that anyone is going to make moves against them to benefit newcomers. If push came to shove, they would just favor immigrants from the hanzi sphere.

    In Canada`s province of Quebec, there is fear about immigrants (who are 100% driving population growth) not learning French. As a result, they are legally forced to put their children in French schools (they can go private but that is out of the range of 90% of immigrants). Even English, Canada`s other national language that would offer far greater opportunities for mobility and marketability for children of immigrants, is out of bounds. Its not hard to see similar language jitters in Japan and this is far from unique. The only sphere where this is really different is the English-speaking world where it is more or less taken for granted that many immigrants will speak English already or learn enough to get by before long.

    “I wonder if all these new people will be able to keep up even with the pretty low “2kyu plus” requirements, especially when their job qualifications don’t depend on it.”

    No, but their kids most likely will. For all of the failures in the Nikkeijin community, Chinese, by all accounts have been far more successful at learning Japanese.

    On the issue of “attracting immigrants” – Japan will have to work to attract good ones. However, while China may have limited its population growth, most other low GDP/capita countries have not. Lots of countries are looking at a population bomb – won`t be able to support their populations on existing resources. Add to this water problems, etc. and it is easy to see LOTS of people leaping at the chance to go to Japan to live. In fact, I would not be surprised if Japan starts to see scores of “boat people” in the 2020s or 2030s. The future will be about managing that and fishing for “desirable” immigrants, not trying to attract just anyone.

  25. Also, immigration to more distant places like America and Europe will become increasingly expensive if fuel prices remain high. That, coupled with what appears to be damnear total economic disintegration in the Western world, will probably make Japan a more economically attractive destination to people in developing Asia.

  26. “there was discussion of getting rid of the JAPANESE LANGUAGE in favor of English.

    As I recall (I was around the time; founding member of the Meirokusha…?), it wasn’t a huge debate. Fukuzawa or somebody figured it might be cool, but I don’t think it ever had any hope of getting anywhere. There were umpteen weird and wonderful ideas for getting Da West to accept Japan back then – yet oddly enough, as an aside, it took surprisingly long, relatively, to do one of the biggies and legalise Xianity: finally (officially) done in 1873. Okay, that’s only five years after Meiji, but they got a lot done in those five years….

    I am also opposed to reducing kanji usage, for several reasons. One, I busted my arse learning them. So everyone else should too…. Two, Japanese is too full of homonyms – forget Mishima; many manga would be impenetrable…. Three: Kanji are easier to read than kana. No, seriously: one glance and you can see what it means. I liken kanji to individual words in English, but kana islikeifyouwriteenglishlikethisandallthelettersweresmooshedupwhichmakesitreallyhardtoreadfrankly.
    What can be done, as mentioned earlier, is furigana: prewar newspapers had them as a matter of course, so in some ways they are actually easier to read than modern ones (although modern ones do at least have full stops now and then…).

  27. “Not related to intermarriage but I’m always struck by the number of reports suggesting the children of Brazilian immigrants have poor language skills. This seems odd: in other countries, the kids are usually far better than their parents to the extent that the phenomenon of “immigrant children mediators” is very common. I suspect the reports mean literacy more than speaking skills but, even so, I wonder whether this gap is being exaggerated.”

    Most of the Brazillians are not interested in living in Japan for more than a decade.So many didn’t invest too much time in children’s education.
    Another reason is very high rate of Brazillian in Japan have disfunctional family,which is not a surprise.Usually the job that Brazillians get are low end and there employment is hardly a stable one.So many of them move around Japan like gypsies.This year in Shizuoka,next year Gunnma.Which usually result in divorce and it’s always children who suffer from such situation.
    Third reason is Brazillians are now making community in Japan that doesn’t require learning Japanese.I once spend some time with Brazillians in Oizumi,Gunma and I was surprised that they are surrounded in Portuguese speaking environment round the clock.They live in apartment offered by the factory which are dominated by Brazillians,they go to the factory where entire factory line is positioned by Brazillian workers.They eat in Brazillian restaurant.They shop in Brazillian owned super market.They go to Brazillian renatl videos to get the latest Brazillian films.They watch Brazillian TV through cables,read Portuguese paper and so on.Naturally,kids only become friends with Brazillians.

    “it probably would have been a full complement. Although they have less than half the population of Indonesia, they have a larger number of Japanese speakers and people who have worked in Japan. ”

    Actually,Indonesia have been sending trainee to Japan for more than a decade.It started with group of Japanese veterans who remained in Indonesia after 1945,joined independece Indonesian army and fought Dutch and became Indonesian citizens.They wanted to send their relatives(who are Indonesians)to Japan,and Japanese fishery company have connection with Indonesia through supply base for the south sea trolling vessels exist elsewhere in the country.So many Indonesians work mostly in canned fish factories in Japan and unlike Brazillians or the Phillipines,there has been no serious problem.(Although I heard from one Indonesian specialist that one of Indonesian workers who worked in Japan had donated,or so he said on a website,about a million yen to Laskar Jihad,the muslim militia that had send in militiamen to Christian islamd of Ambon during sectarian violence in 2000.)

    “As I recall (I was around the time; founding member of the Meirokusha…?), it wasn’t a huge debate. Fukuzawa or somebody figured it might be cool,”

    That was Mori Arinori 森有礼,the first minister of Education.
    There has also been some recommendation from U.S educational mission during occupation days to abolish Kanji and Romanize Japanese.

  28. On the J-Brazilians — it’s worse than I thought! I had always assumed the thugs in Shibuya were at least functional…

    But now that you mention it, I remember seeing an NHK documentary about a neighborhood association in a community with lots of Brazilians. The locals had to convince the one Brazilian guy who could speak a little Japanese (he was a nisei who learned from his parents growing up) to explain to people that they have to separate their garbage etc. It was pretty shocking if not surprising how unconnected the Brazilian factory workers were to their communities.

    I think someone mentioned above that in general Japanese people don’t talk to strangers.

  29. “I think someone mentioned above that in general Japanese people don’t talk to strangers.”

    But they do have lots and lots of municipal clubs and culture centres and things like that for people who want to try.

    Where I`m from, people like to think of themselves as the most friendly people in the world. Dosen`t keep the local Chinese community from being cut off in its own language sphere, own shops, etc. The truth is that neither the locals OR the Chinese residents really want to come half way. The same thing goes for Brazilian communities in Japan as I understand it. Not sure that anything can be done about this. A cheesy “we are the world” outreach is bound to fail. In defense of the Japanese side, lots of these areas are offering free Japanese lessons, preparing documents in different languages detailing municipal programs, etc. And let`s face, you have to have some pretty confused values if you don`t even bother to put your kids in a school of any type.

    That being said, I do know nikkeijin getting along famously in Japan. The common characteristic is that them learned Japanese growing up and live in areas with few people from their own country.

    Not all bad, however. Chinese in Japan seem to integrate better and Indians are great, apparently. Bit in the Nikkei a few days back about how an Indian guy became the head of his local neighborhood association.

  30. “The truth is that neither the locals OR the Chinese residents really want to come half way.”

    M-Bone: So what in your opinion is needed for the locals to come “half way”? The same problem exists in my home town, as you know, and Chinese complain that they can’t make friends with the locals, but I wonder how much they even try. Just thinking back to some Chinese I knew, who generally only hung out with other Chinese, even if they’d been in the country years (since before they were ten in some cases)….

  31. Japan Focus had a good article on the general shadiness of the foreign trainee program pretty recently.

    I think it’s probably fair to say that out of Asia, S. Korea and Taiwan have the closest general economic composition and level, and while I don’t know about Korea I have heard a little bit about Taiwan’s overseas worker program. It made a number of headlines a few years ago, when it was discovered that one contractor working for Kaohsiung city in the construction of their new subway system was keeping Thai overseas workers in illegal conditions, with arbitrary and capricious slave-like rules on their daily lives, similar to but perhaps worse than those described for the Toyota subcontractors in the Japan Focus article. There was a public outcry, I believe the workers affected were returned home, but I do not know if anything was done to improve oversight in the system. It is worth noting as well that Taiwan has an actual guest worker program, in which factory workers can be imported for something like a 2-3 year shift, after which they have to leave before re-applying for another. When I went to the Philippines, I even had a taxi driver who had worked as an overseas worker in a Taiwanese factory.
    The Taipei Times also had the following item this week:

    Taiwan and the Philippines have signed guidelines for a direct employment program, Tsai Meng-liang (蔡孟良), the director of the Council of Labor Affairs’ Foreign Workers’ Administration said yesterday. Tsai said the nation’s representative to the Philippines, Donald Lee (李傳通), and his Philippine counterpart, Antonio Basilio, inked the agreement in Cebu late last month. Under the guidelines, direct employment will be expanded to cover not only caregivers, but also foreign workers in the manufacturing and construction industries, Tsai said, adding that application procedures would be simplified. The countries will also collaborate to reduce the number of repatriated and runaway workers, Tsai said, adding that as of the end of last month, 2,700 Filipino workers were reported missing. About 85,000 Filipinos, out of a total 358,000 foreign workers, are employed in Taiwan, the Ministry of the Interior said.

    2,700 out of 85,000 seems like a pretty high missing rate to me, but the Taiwanese public doesn’t seem overly obsessed with the issue, compared with Japan. (At least, unless the runaways are from China, in which case even one makes the news.)

  32. South Korea has similar system for oversea workers.They are mostly ethnic Koreans from China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region and Mongolians.There are also army of Vietnamese women marrying to Korean farmers in rural area.(whereas the nitche is filled by the Phillipinos in Japan)
    I have many friends and relatives in Mongolia who worked in South Korea.According to my wife,the working condition isn’t bad and the visa restriction is far more loose then Japan.but then again,I’ve seen many coming back with empty handed.

  33. (So what in your opinion is needed for the locals to come “half way”? )

    I think that the locals in your home town (where I have lived) HAVE come half way. Lots of exchange events, promotion of language exchange, involvement of Chinese in the local media, municipal materials in Chinese, banking, etc. They don`t need to go half way for ALL Chinese, just make sure that there is a system in place for those who want to build bridges.

    The other option would be just to carry on as normal and drop the “most friendly people in the world” hubris.

    As for short term language study / vacation types – I don`t think that anything can be done to encourage exchange if those people don`t want it.

    On the subject of Japan`s shady trainee problem -> it looks pretty bad. However, I`m afraid that the North American alternative has been worse -> the authorities look the other way on hundreds of thousands (or millions) of illegals being employed virtually as indentured laborers. I wonder if the situation is as bad for Japanese illegals?

  34. Some politicians in the US have been proposing implementing a guest worker program very similar to the ones that exist in Taiwan/S. Korea. What’s the situation like in Canada? Without a land border to an emigrant nation I can’t imagine they get even close to the number of illegal immigrants that the US does, but I could certainly imagine Canada getting at least as many people overstaying visas- which even in the US is a rarely mentioned but hefty percentage of the total.

    From what I hear, Taiwan also goes pretty heavily for the Vietnamese brides. Lots of Filipina elderly care workers though.

  35. Canada`s main problem at present is with refugee claims. No investigation and some flaws in the system (if you are from a country with anti-gay laws, you can claim to be gay and get fast-tracked). I`m all for liberal protection of refugees, but Canada has to do something to make sure that it is the people who need help who get help.

    My impression of the Canadian situation is that things are made easy for overstayers and illegal entrants to get legal. Canada has a major, major labor shortage out west so this situation is okay with most. Quebec is a very different matter – as I mentioned before, depends heavily on immigrants and yet is very focused on preserving its unique (for North Ameirca) culture so there is some tension.

  36. Is it impolite to ask whether the work permit could actually be more valuable to these students than the education they’re getting?

    No, Adam, it’s not at all – and it’s a question I would ask from an empirical/rationalist point of view. Yet, it is a matter of personal choice, is it not? I worked as a uni student, both and home and overseas. I saw working during that point in my life as part of training myself in a sense. And I find it hard to believe that I would be better off had I continued one of those jobs versus having completed uni studies. For a typical international student in Japan, I think that choice is even clearer.

    So, while a work permit might be more financially valuable in the short term, I think studying and earning a degree (while working part time and getting some skills) is even more valuable to the individual.

    Great post. Thank you for writing.

  37. According to my wife,the working condition isn’t bad and the visa restriction is far more loose then Japan.but then again,I’ve seen many coming back with empty handed.

    Aceface, do you mean financially empty handed as in the jobs did not pay enough to cover cost of living, or empty handed due to some sort of non-payment of wages from employers? Or empty handed as in they got so rich they could hire someone to carry everything for them?

    I doubt the last one.

  38. Also, immigration to more distant places like America and Europe will become increasingly expensive if fuel prices remain high

    Joe, that is actually very interesting.

    I would love to know what it cost to take a steamer to NYC from Europe in 1880, 1900 and 1920.

    Even with high fuel costs now, it seems like an opportunity cost that can be written off in the future. But then again, I don’t know for the life of me what my grandfather paid to take his family to the US.

  39. I don’t know if steamers are a good comparison (although I would be curious to know the old numbers too).

    My thinking is that the trip isn’t a one-time investment any more: immigrants these days generally expect to go home and see their relatives on a fairly regular basis. This used to be pretty cheap. For the last couple of years one could travel between the US and the Philippines for perhaps $700 or $800. Now it’s more like $1500 and there isn’t much sign of a decrease on the horizon. When you’re going to work in a fairly low-paying job, that cost must be part of the consideration.

  40. Yeah, the old days of immigration were very different. All 8 of my great-grandparents took steamers from Europe to New York around 100 years ago, and I’m pretty sure that not a single one of them ever went back for a visit. Of course, if the Holocaust hadn’t happened they might have had something to go back TO visit once they were old and airplanes were affordable as a rare luxury.

  41. “Aceface, do you mean financially empty handed as in the jobs did not pay enough to cover cost of living, or empty handed due to some sort of non-payment of wages from employers? Or empty handed as in they got so rich they could hire someone to carry everything for them?”

    All I can say is these Mongolians didn’t have any life plans or what to do after they got back.So they have very loose control with their money.And Brazillian immigrant who has problem in Japan fits this category.(Those who has concrete plans go back to Brazil as soon as they’ve raised enough money and start their own business and not even think for a second of staying in Japan).

  42. Now that I think about it, “Why does Japan need more foreigners?” and, “Why does Japan need more immigrants?” are not the same question.

    Japan is actively seeking more foreigners, especially the tourist type.

  43. Interesting that 1/3 of Lawson’s new corporate hires are foreigners. Of course this is the head office staff right? I wonder if all of them worked part time in actual Lawson stores while they were studying?

  44. They are all head office staffs.Don’t know whether they ever worked in the field though.But it seems Lawson is pretty serious about hiring foreigners for the future senior posts.Ofcourse,management is probably thinking about their overseas branches too.

  45. I remember seeing a Lawson in Shanghai in early 2003. Not sure if 7/11 is there, but they’re ubiquitous in Taiwan, Thailand, Philippines, etc.

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