Japan is the world’s third largest economy accounting for over 9 percent of the world’s economy in 2012. However, Japan is confronting a stagnant economy and an aging population that could cast a shadow on its future development. In the wake of this urgent and ongoing agenda, Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, referred to immigration as a solution to this issue in the Japanese Diet on 13 February, 2014. But until now, immigration has not been a familiar topic to Japan and its people. The ratio of immigrants to Japanese is very close to zero—it is the second lowest, next to Mexico, among OECD countries, primarily because the government strictly controls immigration. If Japan does shift its strict immigration policies, what would the consequences be for Japan and its immigrants? What are the obstacles to this transformation?
First, political conditions and recognition of immigrants in Japan will be improved and public awareness of human rights issues regarding domestic minorities can be reinforced. Meanwhile, there are not so many documented immigrants in Japan, but Japan still has a considerable number of illegal foreigners. The Ministry of Justice reported on 1 January, 2014 that it recognized 670,065 people were overstaying in Japan without legitimate permission (nationals from South Korea, China, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Peru, Brazil, and Sri Lanka top the list). Some of these undocumented people remain in Japan to seek better life opportunities, but they tend to be trapped into lives of crimes or into the illegal job market due to their illegal status. To make matters worse, some illegal immigrants are deceived by false promises or by being forcibly brought to Japan through international trafficking networks. Many are likely to be exploited as forced laborers or sex workers, involved with crimes such as prostitution without any protection. It is said that the “Yakuza” (a powerful Japanese crime organization) has much to do with this human trafficking. The Japanese government has recognized this precarious situation, but the practical effectiveness of enacted laws is still questionable. If the government deregulates restrictions of immigrant visas, more of them can enjoy legal status that would help them gain access to social protections and decent economic opportunities, and less would be dependent on illegal routes. Hence, Japanese immigration policies are correlated with enhancing human rights and combatting international crime.
Second, Japan’s long-term economic development may benefit from migrants. With his distinctive economic policies (known as Abenomics), the Japanese prime minister is trying to bolster the economy. However, Japan has several structural problems preventing this goal being achieved. And a demographic problem has existed for a long time in Japan, negatively influencing the Japanese economy by increasing the social welfare burdens and decreasing new demands in the domestic market and the labor force. Persons over 65 surpass 30 million and constitute 24 percent of Japan’s population, while children under 14 only account for 13 percent. In addition, Japan’s government estimates that the population will decrease to 42,860,000 by 2110 if Japan does nothing. However, according to research Japan can maintain a 100 million population if it accepts 200,000 immigrants every year and if its total fertility rate is bolstered. The government also expects immigrants to offset the increasing burdens of social welfare costs and the shortage in the labor forces. Because of such backgrounds, the government promised that research and discussions will shift into high gear.
So far allowing further immigration sounds like a silver bullet for Japan and its migrants, but integration issues must also be taken into account. This would, in fact, be the biggest setback in the shift of Japan’s immigration policies and, this is a reason why Japan has avoided this topic until now—Japan has basically been homogenous in terms of language, culture, and ethnicity. For example, Japan does not define its official language by law because Japanese has been the de facto official language, and Japanese people account for over 98 percent of Japan’s population. These backgrounds make it difficult for the Japanese to accept radical changes. In fact, research shows 51.6 percent of Japanese people oppose increasing immigrants while 23.1 percent is for and 25.3 percent did not take a position. People against the immigration are concerned about growing crimes, cultural differences and the influx of poor immigrants. A common concern that these people have is Japan might lose its identity and stability because of increasing immigrants. How Japan can make sure the natives and immigrants coexist cooperatively will determine whether immigration becomes a silver bullet or a Pandora’s box.