Why Japan is going to accept more foreign workers

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Why Japan is going to accept more foreign workers

The Economist explainsWhy Japan is going to accept more foreign workers

A diminishing, ageing population has changed attitudes

The Economist explains

FOREIGN cashiers and carers are now a fact of life in Japan, especially in urban areas. The number of foreign workers has risen fast recently, to 1.3mâ€"some 2% of the workforce. Although visas that allow foreigners to settle in Japan are in theory mainly for highly skilled workers, in practice those with fewer skills may be admitted as students or trainees or as immigrants of Japanese extraction. In June the government announced that it would create a “designated-skills” visa in order to bring in 500,000 new workers by 2025, in agriculture, construction, hotels, nursing and shipbuilding.

Japan h as historically been wary of admitting foreigners. It is one of the rich world’s most homogenous countries: just 2% of residents are foreigners, compared with 4% in South Korea and 16% in France. The reasons for this attitude range from fears that outsiders will bring crime and damage societal practices, to concerns that Japanese residents will not be able to communicate properly with them. But Japan’s population is old and getting smaller. To fill shortages in the labour force caused by the shrinking working-age population, government policy has focused on getting more women and old people into work, and using artificial intelligence. It has become apparent though that this is not enough; and businesses also want foreigners to help them remain competitive and to become more global.

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Indeed pressure from business is a big reason behind the change of tack. Over the past 20 years the number of workers under 30 has shrunk by a quarter. Another result of the greying population is the creation of ever more jobs, most notably as carers, that few Japanese want to do at the wages on offer. There are 60% more job vacancies than there are people looking for work. Industries such as agriculture and construction, as well as nursing, are increasingly dependent on foreigners. More exposure to foreigners, through a boom in tourism, has reassured Japanese, especially the young, that they can ge t along with them, too. A poll conducted last year found opinion evenly split about whether Japan should admit more foreign workers, with 42% agreeing and 42% disagreeing. Some 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds were in favour, however: double the share among the over-70s.

Attracting the foreign workers Japan needs will not necessarily be easy. Language is a big barrier. Japanese-language abilities are not necessary for highly skilled workers wanting visas, but only a handful of companies work in English. Lowlier workers, who must pass a Japanese exam, are currently not allowed to bring their families and will not be able to under the “designated-skills” visa. Firms in which promotion is based on seniority rather than merit and in which long hours are the norm will find it hard to attract workers, too. Japan also needs to do more to help integrate foreigners. By accepting, for the most part, a small number of highly skilled workers, Japan has been able to get away without any inte gration policy. But as the number of immigrants rises, and especially as more low-skilled workers are admitted, this omission threatens to bring about some of the very concerns that prompted the government to restrict immigration in the first place, such as ghettoisation and poverty.

Dig deeper
Japan is finally starting to admit more foreign workers (July 12th 2018)

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