Japan the need for migrant labour and why have

Japan has had a history of being a country very closed
off to immigration, whilst most major developed economies have had large
numbers of immigration. In this essay I will examine the reasons behind Japan’s
low levels of immigrants in the labour force. We will also examine if Japan
must increase their rate of Immigration in order to keep up with the other economically
developed countries and what the impacts of increased migration may have on the


Japan has one of the lowest percentage of foreign workers
in the labour force in the developed world with only 1.2% of the labour force
being foreign which is including the non-citizen Korean population. Whereas
countries in Western Europe and other developed countries often exceed ten
percent (Bartam 2005). Unlike the other developed countries however, Japan’s
immigration has really only picked up after it became an economic power as
opposed to other countries that arguably used immigrant labour to become
economic powers. So this poses the question of how Japan managed to develop
into an economically developed country without the need for migrant labour and
why have these numbers remained so low.

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Japan first noticed the labour shortage during the ‘Izanagi’
boom (late 1960’s to early 70’s), however it is often thought that these labour
shortages were fulfilled by Japanese rural workers who moved to urban arears to
take these jobs, as well this there is less of social stigma for people who
have low skilled jobs in Japan compared to other developed countries. This
domestic labour reserve is commonly thought to be the reason why Japan did not
need to turn to a foreign labour force as opposed to other economically developed
countries which largely used foreign labour. However Bartam (2005) finds that
the domestic labour reserve in Japan was very similar to other countries who
have a significantly larger immigrant work force. During the 1960’s it was true
that Japan had far more agricultural workers than some European countries, although
if we look at the times in which countries experienced a similar labour shortage
in similar economic conditions then we find that countries such as West Germany
and France actually had similar labour reserves of agricultural workers (Bartam
2005).  However, when faced with a labour
shortage these countries chose instead to import foreign labour so this begs
the question of why Japan chose to turn to its agricultural workers to fill the
labour shortage when it could have tried to import foreign labour.


At the time Japanese corporations were often
petitioning the government to allow more foreign workers to come to Japan, Bartam
(2005) remarks that in fact many employers were facing a “critical” worker
shortage with many employer not being able to find suitable employees for the
jobs they were offering. The domestic labour reserve was clearly not
sufficient, as the people who comprised this labour reserve were often old and
unwilling to relocate as well as having lower levels of education. The problem
however is that most government ministries were vehemently against the idea of
using foreign labour. The labour ministry was very against foreign labour, at
the time only allowing a very small trainee program. It produced many reports
where their main concerns with foreign labour was that they believed that
foreign low-skilled labour would lead to lower productivity and wages for the
Japanese population as well as this they believed it would have a negative
social impact due to some workers inevitably deciding to remain in Japan permanently
and starting families (Bartam 2005).


So this indicates that although Japan did use a
domestic labour reserve to fill their labour shortage, businesses still had
shortages as the domestic labour reserve was not fully suitable to take jobs in
urban areas. But the Government had no desire to allow this, which may have stunted
the growth of Japanese businesses. Bartam (2005) remarked that “it was not
possible for the economy to continue to grow at such a rate, given population
and labour force constraints.”


Although there has been some attempt to bring in foreign
workers in recent years, it is clear that all of these attempts have failed
mainly due to a lack of sustained government support. These are technical internships,
qualifying as a highly skilled foreign professional, as
part of the EPA program or simply as international students working a part-time
job. We will look at why each of these programs have failed.

Technical internships are
programs that allow low skilled workers to come to Japan for three years to
work. There are however many issues with this program and the amount of
participants in this program is steady declining, year on year. However, a
large issue with the program is that workers regularly face poor working conditions
and low pay.


The minister of regional revitalization, Shigeru
Ishiba said “The reality is, a lot of those who come for training work under
poor labour conditions rather than as real trainees.” The U.S. Department of
State said in its July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report that some of the
workers who participate in the program as experiencing conditions of forced
labour. These issues will inevitably dissuade workers from coming to Japan in
order to train as the reality is that they are likely to be working under
exploitative conditions and not receive any valuable training. Tang Xili, a
Chinese worker who came to Japan as a technical intern said “I really regret
coming to Japan … I won’t recommend that my friends come here to suffer”
(Nohara and Ma 2016). If Chinese workers are having bad experiences and then
returning to tell their friends and families not to work in Japan, it will
cause a drop in people who choose to come to Japan.

As well as this the Yen has dropped 21% against the
Yuan since Abe took office in 2012, this means that now the average wage in
China ($990) is only slightly lower than they national average minimum wage in
Japan ($1100), this makes it even less appealing to travel to Japan as a
technical intern especially as Tang Xili claimed that she was actually paid
less than minimum wage for the overtime that she worked. Coupled with the fact
that the Chinese workers are often paying large fees (up to $10,000) to
agencies in order to come to Japan, it seems like it may be more valuable for
the workers to stay in China since they are seemingly not getting any
worthwhile training that they could bring home with them.


Coming to Japan as a highly skilled professional is
another path someone can take to work in Japan. However it’s difficult to
obtain enough points to qualify as a “highly skilled foreign professionals” but
even if you do the main issue is that there is a very large income requirement
of 10million Yen. Also, the system only covers three fields of work: research,
engineering and management. Finally, the system has not had much publicity
overseas due to limited budgets


Japan has an ageing population and thus has issues
finding people to work jobs that students and young people would typically work
such as working as waiter or in a convenience store. So if Japan had more international students
then they would have more people to work these low skilled jobs. However, Japan
receives a low amount of international students compared to other OECD
countries, with only 5% of international students going to OECD countries
choosing to go to Japan. As well as this, most of the international students
going to Japan are from Asian countries.

Compared to other Asian countries as a destination,
China is the seen as the favourite destination with Japan coming as a distant


The EPA was attached to a free trade agreement, so can
be seen as a compromise in that by allowing immigrant labour for carers and
nurses it allows Japan to sell goods to South East Asian countries. As well as
this, it serves as a test for the formation of the future immigration policy as
one of the options to cope with the crises of care and population shrinkage.


have to help the care workers learn Japanese and pass the national exam. This
is an issue since the supervisors are not trained language teachers so they
struggle to teach the workers which causes them to have an increased workload.
As well as this language teachers are not equipped with the vocabulary that the
care workers would need to pass the national exam. Supervisors are using trial
and error to teach the care workers which shows a lack of support by the
government. This means that a limitation to the program is the government
support after the workers are placed is not sufficient or possibly that remote
areas are not suitable for this program as the care workers have restricted
access to language and caregiving schools. It could also be argued that the 6
months of language school that the workers are given before starting work are
not of a sufficient length or quality.


One could argue that a reason for the governments
consist lack of implementing policies that would bring in more labour is a fear
of Japan losing its homogony. Kazuteru Tagaya, professor of law at Dokkyo
University believes that pursing any meaningful immigration policy in Japan is
taboo: “It’s a taboo because of the premise that Japan is racially homogeneous.
A majority of the general public won’t accept it.” (Nohara and Ma 2016).


It is because of this that most of the policies Japan
has for low-skilled workers (technical internships and use of international students)
are only using temporary workers. The EPA program is the only program which actually
looks at taking on employess


We now must think if Japan can sustain itself without
a meaningful immigration policy against the backdrop of an aging population.
Japan sits at record low unemployment rates which means that businesses cannot
grow as there are not enough people to sustain growth. It is clear that Japan
needs to look to foreign worker to avoid a massive labour shortage in the
future Barron (2017): “With no one left to build their roads, harvest their
food, or empty their hospital bedpans, Japan needs workers, and it needs them


By 2050, to prevent a loss of population then 17.7% of
the population would consist of immigrants and their descendants. To maintain
the size of the working-age population that would have to be 30.4% of the
population. Going further to maintain the PSR, it would have to be 87%. Japan
has one of the lowest immigration rates of a developed countries, so even
having enough immigration to prevent a loss of population may seem high, but
other developed countries have had similar or higher rates. In 1990, 16 per
cent of the population of Canada and Switzerland and 23 per cent of the
population of Australia were foreign-born. It is vital that Japan changes its
approach to immigration, to avoid a shrinking population.


The main issue with implementing immigration polices
however is the social impact due to the Japan being a homogenous society and
the idea that …… For some people it may strengthen their race thinking as
more people who are not Japanese live in their society, so people may develop
an “us” vs “them” mentality which would lead to people thinking more that they
are a distinct race. This may lead to people having ideas of needing to
preserve their race since it is part of the extended family they may want to
keep it that way.

Conversely, this idea of “race thinking” may fade due
to immigration as people start mixing and having mixed-race children, the exact
definition of what is “Japanese” will start to blur until it is no longer a
social construct.