TOKYO: On Oct 14, a number of marches were held across Japan to mark what the organiser — the Japan First Party — labelled "anti-migrant day".
The target of the protesters’ wrath was the government’s proposal to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to introduce two new types of residence status for foreign workers in industries currently undergoing labour shortages.
The proposal represents official acceptance of unskilled foreign workers in Japan for the first time in the post-war period.
Under the revision, type 1 residents will require basic Japanese language and job skills and will be able to stay for up to five years. Type 2 workers will need higher Japanese language and vocational skills but will be able to stay indefinitely and, unlike type 1 residents, bring spouses and children.
JAPAN OPENS UP
The plan to open the door to unskilled foreign workers is taking many in Japan by surprise. Japan has long followed a de facto "no immigration principle" — an institutionalisation of the "homogeneous people" ideology of the Japanese nation that continues to play a key role in structuring national identity.
The perception that allowing greater numbers of foreigners into Japan would damage social cohesion and harm public safety has tended to override rational economic argument.
Public concerns over migrants have changed little. What has changed is that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, faced with acute labour shortages that threaten to undermine the steady economic growth seen under Abenomics, has been forced to act.
The difficulty of immigration reform in Japan is reflected in the way the legislation is being introduced — short on detail and with little fanfare.
Significantly, it is being introduced in tandem with a controversial bill to amend the constitution that is likely to take the spotlight off immigration reform.
Details of the proposed reforms are also being kept deliberately vague. The government is yet to specify which industries will be eligible and how many workers will be accepted.
It is speculated that the reforms will cover at least 14 industries (in the case of type 1 residents), including construction, elderly care, agriculture, and the service industry, and will bring in between a quarter to half a million more foreign workers.
The revision is by no means guaranteed to pass. The government is bending over backwards to stress that it is not an immigration policy, and that even type 2 residents will be subject to regular checks and be required to apply for extensions of their period of stay each year.
Despite these assurances and studious avoidance of the "I" word (imin in Japanese), opposition is becoming increasingly vocal. Public opinion remains firmly against "settlement", with critics arguing that the revision is an immigration policy in all but name.
Concerns about the revision’s potential impact on public security have been voiced by politicians of various parties.
In response, the government is proposing tough conditions for companies wanting to hire workers under the revised policy, as well as stricter regulatory authority to monitor hiring companies and workers.
The ad-hoc, constantly changing nature of the revision’s content as discussions proceed in both Japanese media and the Diet (Japan’s parliament) is indicative of the subject matter's sensitivity.
Another point of criticism is the insufficient support systems for new residents. The government has tentatively suggested increasing the number of Japanese language classrooms, setting up multilingual consultation services and offering help to find housing.
Japanese language education is in particular need of reform, with nearly 60 per cent of teachers being volunteers, most of them elderly. There are no national teaching guidelines or unified curriculum, and various qualifications exist for Japanese language teachers.
As for housing, a Ministry of Justice survey from 2017 found that almost 40 per cent of foreign residents had been refused housing during the preceding five years on the basis of their nationality.
While the protestors in the "anti-migrant day" marches were made up of mostly ultranationalists, anxiety over what could be seen as Japan’s "third opening up" is beginning to appear among the general populace.
The irony is that Japan will have real reason to be anxious if it continues to fudge immigration reform.
The country will continue to shrink demographically, economically and in stature if it carries on viewing foreigners as little more than disposable labour for jobs that Japanese citizens don’t want to do, rather than as settlers who can contribute to society.
Chris Burgess is Professor in Japanese studies at Tsuda University, Tokyo. This commentary first appeared in the East Asia Forum