Barriers to foreigners could backfire
2018-03-12, Cai Hong

Spring is the time when Japanese companies recruit college graduates. Students who will graduate this spring in Japan seem to be the happiest people in the world thanks to the best job market in decades. More than 60 percent of the students graduating in 2018 got preliminary job offers in June last year.

Japan had 1.59 jobs for every applicant in January, the highest since 1974. And the unemployment rate stood at 2.8 percent in December, the lowest among developed countries.

Japan, however, has the worst manpower shortage since the early 1970s. According to a survey of more than 1,300 companies by Japan’s Ministry of Finance, about 71 percent said they are undermanned. 

The Japanese government decided in mid-February to raise the retirement age of public servants, from 60 years to 65 years in stages. At the earliest, the bills to revise the related laws, such as the National Public Service Act, are expected to be submitted to the parliament in 2019 to enable the retirement age to be extended in phases from fiscal 2021.

At present, Japanese citizens can choose to start receiving their pensions at any point between the ages of 60 and 70, with higher monthly payments offered to those who do so after their 65th birthday. The government has said it would support firms that raise their mandatory retirement age, which is 60.

Still, immigration remains unpopular in Japan as the country wants to retain a strong perception of ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Immigration is such a politically sensitive issue that the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reiterated it will stand by immigration controls.

Learning from the experiences of countries such as Canada, however, Japan introduced a points-based system for “highly skilled foreign professionals” in 2012. 

Advanced degrees, language skills, work experience and other qualifications are tallied up, and a high score can help foreign workers earn permanent residency — the equivalent of a US green card — in as little as one year. 

After that, it takes up to five years of residency and another year or so of paperwork for a foreigner to become a Japanese citizen.

The total number of legal foreign workers in Japan remains small, at 1.28 million as of October 2017, in a total population of 127 million. While people in Japan do not welcome immigrants, the Japanese government has moved to expand the scope of a system under the “technical intern trainees” program. 

In 1993, Japan launched the Technical Intern Training Program as a way to contribute to the international community by sharing Japanese knowledge and technology with the developing world. 

But people from developing countries including China have ended up toiling in hardscrabble sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and construction in which fewer and fewer Japanese choose to work.

Japan’s Ministry of Labor says 40,000 companies have accepted foreign trainees under the program. The total number of foreigners working under the program increased by 120,000 in four years to nearly 260,000 in October last year.

After one year of training, during which the migrant workers receive subsistence pay below the minimum wage, they are allowed to work for two more years in their area of “expertise” and earn the usual wages, in principle. But cases of long working hours, unpaid wages, harsh living and working conditions, and even violence, have been reported.

Japanese and foreign critics say migrant workers from developing countries have become a source of cheap labor in Japan, which has one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations and lowest birth rates.

Under a new law that took effect in November, nursing care has been added to the list of sectors in which foreign trainees can work. 

The labor shortage is serious. Abe has ordered the creation of a new system for admitting large numbers of foreign workers for Japan’s nursing care, agriculture and other industrial sectors.

But the workers will not be allowed to bring their families with them, and they will have to leave after working in Japan for a certain period of time.

The Japanese government plans to broaden the coverage of, and lower the requirements for, residence status categories in “professional or technical fields”, which currently cover only skilled non-Japanese workers, such as university professors, corporate managers and researchers.

Whether the approach, which critics called “opportunistic”, will attract foreign workers to Japan is doubtful.

Japan is found not friendly to foreign residents. A survey of long-stay foreigners aged 18 or over conducted by Japan’s Justice Ministry last year brought to the fore the problem of rampant discrimination against foreign people who call Japan home.

Thirty-nine percent of the respondents who had sought housing during the past five years said their applications had been turned down because they were foreigners.

The survey showed that 25 percent of the interviewees said their job applications had been refused, while 20 percent said their wages were lower than their Japanese colleagues doing the same kind of work and 17 percent said they had been denied promotion.

Kiyoto Tanno, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, warned that unless Japan treats the foreigners living in the country better, they will not come to its rescue when Japan truly needs their manpower.

Mid-sized Japanese companies, which are too small to compete with large corporations for the college graduates, plan to buy robots and other equipment to automate a wide range of tasks, including manufacturing, earthmoving and hotel room service.

They may be right to turn to robots for help. The country’s hiring pool will become smaller as long as the government keeps Japan closed.


The author is China Daily’s 

bureau chief in Tokyo.

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