Japan – a destination for immigration ?

When I studied in Japan, my friends and I were impressed by the politeness and friendliness of the Japanese who were always ready to help us out, for instance, showing the way no matter if it was raining heavily… Nowadays,  lots of people are still attracted by this enigmatic culture. And I’ve been also wondering how to come back to this country for  longer, and what a life as an immigrant would be there… However, recent headlines show how difficult it may be to be an immigrant in Japan.

Decreasing results at Toyota or Sony are increasing the number of layoffs. Then, an increase in unemployment rate (currently 4.6% in Japan) would renew with government subsidies for one-way ticket home for jobless immigrants and their families.

It also appears that the Japanese job market is much more selective for young graduates of a foreign origin.  According to the recruitment firm Mainichi Communications, in 2008 only 11,000 out of the 130,000 foreign students of the Japanese universities and vocational schools found jobs in Japan.

The country is also losing skilled workers across industries, as investment banks and other foreign companies seem to prefer setting up their regional headquarters in other East-Asian countries, such as Hong Kong or Singapore, that are more welcoming to immigration, offer better tax rates, lower cost of living and also speak English.

Thus, Japan is not a popular destination for immigrants in Asia. According to OECD, immigrants in Japan represent about 1.6% of the total population (rank 135 out of 195 countries surveyed). However, its declining economy and decreasing population urges the government to revisit immigration policy.

The problem is that Japan is a rather conservative country with well-established traditions, where people are used to do things in a certain way. Immigration would break this order. Also, the educational system adds to the negative attitude towards the immigrants in Japan, fostering a view of immigration as a potential source of social disorder and crime. Moreover, since Japan has a strong national identity, it makes it difficult for the Japanese to understand that foreigners may love their country as much as the native citizens do.

And, there are other facts that make it harder for a foreigner to settle down in Japan. First, a visa granting the longest stay is issued for 5 years and the language requirements remain very high disregarding labor shortages (for example, the probability for a nurse to pass the Japanese language test is 3 out of 600).

Second, integration in the Japanese society is another issue.  In a survey by Asahi Shimbun (the leading publisher in Japan), 65%  out of 2,400 respondents oppose a more open immigration policy. This means that the Japanese are more likely to see foreigners as visitors than fellow citizens.

Third, the government itself seems to favor anti-gaijin (“a foreigner” in Japanese) policies and regulations (see video below). It does little to help immigrants integrate in the society, even those who came with the immigration waves in 1980s when Japan needed labor in growing electronics business, or in 1990s when Latin-Americans of the Japanese descent were allowed to move into the country. For example, there is no law about a compulsory education for children of immigrants. And little incentives to teach Japanese to foreigners lead to their exclusion, as they cannot understand the current news and participate in social and cultural events.

Unfortunately, today’s Japan is an economically declining country. Its growth rates, impacted by shrinking exports, weak domestic consumption and a slowdown of the economic activity after the 2011 tsunami, are close to zero or even negative. Same trend can be observed in the demographics. According to the United Nations, population «will shrink a third over the next 50 years, and thus will need 20 million immigrants by 2050 to maintain productive economy. »

In fact, a more open immigration policy would benefit the economic growth, as immigrant labor allows many goods and services to be produced cheaper. Also it provides the work force for some businesses that otherwise would not survive (restaurant, household services). In addition, working immigrants pay taxes (especially those with higher levels of education and high income) and contribute to the state budget even more than the state would pay for their integration.

Lastly, as leading Japanese companies are exploring market opportunities abroad (the mobile phone communication leader Softbank is entering the US market through acquisition of Sprint Nextel) and are also working on expanding their domestic markets in Japan (the beverage company Suntory recently introduced new products from its French subsidiary Orangina), an immigration-friendly policy would enhance globalization in Japan and influence of the Japanese companies abroad.

Thus, Japan would benefit from higher immigration rate that will ensure sustainable growth for the economy and a better involvement in East Asian region dynamics. Hopefully, immigration-friendly economic policies raised in 2010 by a policy concile (consisting of the Japanese politicians, academics and businessmen) will influence the way the government will address this issue.

This amateur video from Tokyo shows local nationalist activists protesting against foreigners living in Japan:

Anti-gaijin demonstration








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