Written By: Ayaka Behro
Japan broke its long tradition of restricting “low-skilled” foreign workers in 2019, when a new status of residence called “specified skilled worker” was created (1). This category allows workers from 14 underemployed sectors such as farming, nursing care, and janitorial services to work in Japan for up to five years (8).
This policy may be expanded further, as the Japanese government announced it is looking to allow “specified skilled workers” to remain in the country indefinitely starting as soon as the 2022/23 fiscal year (8). This policy has the potential to help recover Japan’s labour market and government finances as immigrants increase the working age population, bolstering the labour supply and tax base. However, Japan’s treatment of lesser-skilled immigrants has been far from ideal, with anecdotes of exploitation and discrimination circulating from past migrants. A recent survey suggests that Japanese natives have not changed their attitudes either. This lack of growth from Japanese natives’ attitudes towards immigrants reduces the effectiveness that the new “specified skilled worker” visa will have on the Japanese economy.
In September 2022, Japan’s elderly population (aged 65+ years old) hit record levels, accounting for 29% of the total population (5). Generally speaking, as the proportion of elderly people increases, pensions, health care and other social service uptake increases. In the case of Japan where the general population is shrinking and the elderly population is rising, the scale of services demanded are increasing but the number of taxable people and consequently government revenues to fund them are decreasing. This issue could be improved by increasing immigration. For this reason, and to improve labour market conditions, Japan expanded its “low-skilled” foreign worker policy in 2019. Regardless, this policy may not produce the expected outcomes because the government is failing to address the underlying issue.
The majority of Japanese citizens have distortive misperceptions regarding migrants, which have been reported to lead to discriminative and exploitive treatment of foreign workers. Japan has a clear labour shortage, evidenced by their active job openings-to-applicants ratio, which indicates that there have been more active job openings than applicants since 2014 (4). In a 2019 survey, the International Labour Organization (ILO) investigated public attitudes towards migrants in four Asian countries, including Japan. The survey reported that a large minority of respondents believe that Japan does not need “low skilled” migrant workers and that they are a drain on the economy (3). More concerningly, the survey suggests that Japanese people believe that migrant workers should not receive the same rights and pay as native workers (3). As shown in Figure 1, 56% of survey respondents stating that migrants should not have any rights at work if they are in an irregular status and 35% of respondents stating that immigrants should not receive the same pay and benefits as natives (3).
Figure 1: ILO Survey Response for Attitudes on Equal Treatment of Migrant Workers (3)
According to Professor Nagayoshi at the University of Tokyo, these discriminative sentiments may stem from Japanese people’s belief that non-Japanese people in the country should be treated as “guests” and be accepted as such and nothing more (7). In the extreme, this could lead to beliefs that foreign residents should be excluded from welfare benefits entirely (7). Unfortunately, past experiences from intern workers are in-line with this train of thought. In a 2016 survey, the Japanese government found that deaths and other injuries at work occurred at almost double the rate for interns working in the Technical Intern Trainee Program (TITP), a program intended to train unskilled migrants, than for native workers, and that 70 per cent of employers failed to abide by labour regulations for interns (9). The TITP, consequently faced intense scrutiny from U.N. human rights bodies (9).
The success of the program thus far, or its lack thereof, provides further evidence that Japan’s immigration system is failing. The Japanese government targeted issuing 340,000 work permits under the “specified skilled worker” visa within 5-years of its inception (6). Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is sure to have adverse effects on Japan’s immigration rates, we can evaluate the success of the program relative to their initial targets only for the first year of the program. In Figure 1, I have plotted the total quarterly number of migrants admitted to Japan under the “specified skilled worker” visa between June 2019 – March 2020.
Figure 2: Total Specified Skilled Workers (SSW) Classified Migrants in Japan (2)
During the first year of the program, the Japanese government admitted 3,987 “specified, skilled worker” visas, only 1.1% of their targets. While the rate of admission has picked up during the first year of the program, it appears Japan will fall short of meeting these targets.
The rationale for increasing immigration in Japan is clear: the country’s substantial labour shortage and aging demographic are putting pressures on government finances and the labour market. The “specified, skilled worker” visa has the potential to help relieve these pressures. However, the past discrimination and exploitation foreign workers experienced, and the current perceptions and attitudes natives have towards immigrants do not create a safe nor inviting environment for foreign workers. Despite the positive contributions that foreign workers have made to Japan’s economy in the past, the government makes a lackluster attempt to correct natives attitudes towards them. In turn, we see that the program has largely failed during the first year of its operation. Although no causal relationship can be drawn with the evidence provided, the narrative and sequence of events suggest that the impending failure of the “specified skilled worker” visa is not due to the policy itself, but the attitudes surrounding it.
(1) Fodale, Hannah. “Resolved: Japan Has Not Done Enough to Bolster Immigration.” RESOLVED: Japan Has Not Done Enough to Bolster Immigration | Center for Strategic and International Studies. Center for Strategic & International Studies, August 7, 2020. https://www.csis.org/analysis/resolved-japan-has-not-done-enough-bolster-immigration.
(2) Immigration Services Agency of Japan. “Publication of Number of Resident Foreign National Specified Skilled Workers.” Immigration Services Agency of Japan, n.d. https://www.isa.go.jp/en/policies/ssw/nyuukokukanri07_00215.html.
(3) International Labour Organization. “Public Attitudes towards Migrant Workers in Japan.” International Labour Organization, December 1, 2020. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/documents/briefingnote/wcms_766631.pdf.
(4) The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training. “Job Openings-to-Applicants Ratio.” The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, n.d. https://www.jil.go.jp/english/estatis/eshuyo/e0208.html.
(5) Kyodo, Jiji. “Over 75s Make up over 15% of Japan’s Population for First Time.” The Japan Times, September 19, 2022. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/09/19/national/japans-graying-population/.
(6) McGuinness, Catherine. “New ‘Specified Skills’ Visa System Likely to Fall Short of Target.” SME Japan | Business in Japan, January 24, 2020. https://www.smejapan.com/business-news/new-specified-skills-visa-system-likely-to-fall-short-of-target/.
(7) Otake, Tomoko. “Prejudice against Immigrants Explained in Numbers.” The University of Tokyo, June 16, 2021. https://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/focus/en/features/z0508_00213.html.
(8) Reuters. “Japan Looks to Accept More Foreigners in Key Policy Shift.”. Thomson Reuters, November 18, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/major-shift-japan-looking-accept-more-foreigners-indefinitely-2021-11-18/.
(9) Takahashi, Saul. “Japan’s New Visa System for Migrant Workers Only Extends the Scope for Exploitation.” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, May 3, 2019. https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/blog/japans-new-visa-system-for-migrant-workers-only-extends-the-scope-for-exploitation/.