Japan is a notoriously closed-off society—difficult for outsiders to understand, but also nearly impossible for them to join. Japan accepts few immigrants, and its society’s ethnic uniformity is a key foundation of modern Japanese culture. Yet, as the population grows older, Japanese officials are starting to think about how younger foreign populations can support the economy. Reuters:
Desperately seeking an antidote to a rapidly aging population, Japanese policymakers are exploring ways to bring in more foreign workers without calling it an “immigration policy”. Immigration is a touchy subject in a land where conservatives prize cultural homogeneity and politicians fear losing votes from workers worried about losing jobs.
But a tight labor market and ever-shrinking work force are making Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy team and lawmakers consider the politically controversial option.
Signaling the shift, leading members of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel on Tuesday proposed expanding the types of jobs open to foreign workers, and double their numbers from current levels of close to 1 million. “Domestically, there is a big allergy. As a politician, one must be aware of that,” Takeshi Noda, an adviser to the LDP panel, told Reuters in an interview.
Immigrants are an attractive salve for Japan’s demographic wounds, and Japanese xenophobia is an easy target of Western condescension. But it is simplistic and foolish to dismiss Japan’s remarkable ability to modernize and simultaneously retain a distilled identity. In an era when many developing countries struggle to calibrate their societies in the face of globalization and multiculturalism, Japan hasn’t had to worry about either. In ways that many observers are likely to overlook, that’s an important Japanese advantage.
Nonetheless, Japan’s aversion to foreigners is a sizable hurdle. Japan has historically had a tough time absorbing new populations. Even reabsorption has been a challenge, as when Japanese Brazilians returned to the Land of the Rising Sun when Brazil’s economy was struggling in the 1990s. Given Japan’s peculiar nature, any changes on immigration are likely to come very slowly, however urgently they may be needed.