In 2019, the Government of Japan introduced a new guest worker program that will bring 345,000 foreign workers to Japan over the next five years to mitigate a shrinking labour force.
Immigration reform is an important economic, political and social policy issue in Japan. The Ambitions for Japanese Immigration symposium brought together specialists from academia, government and civil society to discuss major challenges and goals for immigration reform.
Australia, one of Japan’s closest partners, provides many lessons on the problems of running a large-scale immigration program and managing a successful multicultural society. Experts from Australia joined to discuss immigration from an Australian perspective in a panel on Lessons from Australia.
The ANU’s Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt welcomed the event by emphasising the importance of the Australia–Japan relationship — in particular, the significance of opening up Japan’s immigration. Australia provides lessons, good and bad, for Japan. The ANU should engage in important policy and research discussions in partner countries.
Mr Makoto Kigawa, Special Adviser, Yamato Holdings Co. Ltd, presented the keynote speech on ‘What to do for strategic acceptance of foreign workers’. His presentation outlined the transition from ‘unskilled foreign labour’ to ‘specified skilled workers’ under the ‘new resident status system’. Mr Kigawa highlighted the importance of creating a foreign worker’s migration system that aligned with the labour market demands in Japan. Appropriate social policies and company support should be in place to support the influx of these workers and their families.
Panel One — Ambitions for Japanese Immigration
Panel One consisted of Mr Kimura Yoshio, former LDP member; Professor Mirdori Okano, Faculty of Law, Sophia University, Chiba University; and Nobuhiro Sakamoto, Cross-media News Department of the Nishinippon Shimbun. The panel was chaired by Associate Professor Ozawa Reiko, Graduate School of Social Sciences.
Mr Kimura began by challenging the definition of ‘unskilled labour’ calling to rethink the skills needed for such labour and its importance in Japan. Professor Ogawa reiterated the need to change the narrative around unskilled labour, providing the basis for a more humane set of policies around low paid foreign labour in Japan.
Both Professor Ogawa and Ozawa emphasised that there is a lack of coordinating mechanisms for the various service providers for migrants. They also warned that deregulation may create profiteering incentives and low-quality services in areas such as education and housing.
Mr Sakamoto gave his perspective from Kyushu, where 23 per cent of foreign workers were students. Many of these students came from Nepal in search of better opportunities in Japan and took on debt to finance their trip. This made their part time workload very high. There needs to be careful thought in ways to avoid exploitation of vulnerable migrants.
Questions from the audience discussed educating the Japanese about foreign cultures so that they can understand more about the cultural backgrounds of the foreign workers living in Japan. Questions varied from policy and legislative complexities around minimum wage levels, social support such as education for workers’ children and to a points-based skilled migration system.
Panel Two — Lessons from Australia
Panel Two comprised of Professor Peter McDonald, University of Melbourne, demographer and advisor to the Australian government; Ms Jenny McGregor, former CEO of Asialink; Mr Abul Rizvi, former Deputy Secretary, Australian Department of Immigration, architect of Australia’s immigration system and public commentator; and was chaired by Ms Melanie Brock, Chair Emeritus of Australian & New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan and board member, Sega Sammy Holdings.
Mr Rizvi presented on ‘Australia’s Use of Immigration to Manage Population Aging’, highlighting the benefits from opening Australia to migration since 1990. He showed how increased migration has boosted economic and job growth, suppressed government debt to GDP levels, boosted median incoming levels and increased the supply of labour. This has been done by keeping the median working age four years younger than it otherwise would have been.
Professor McDonald continued this theme in his presentation ‘Australia: Impacts of Immigration on the Population and the Economy’ by showing the difference in the economic state of Australia between no migration and net migration of 200,000 annually. His research showed that population and migration policy should be directed at creating a flexible, agile and productive labour market. Migration keeps Australia’s working age younger and therefore more adaptable to a rapidly changing global economy.
Ms McGregor presented on the cultural benefits of migration. Australia’s immigration is not perfect and requires constant political and social leadership for a more resilient and tolerant multicultural society.
The following discussion included topics on the relevance of Australia’s migration policy experience to Japan, the security ramifications of a more open immigration policy, and questions of citizenship and nation building. An interesting point mentioned was that ease of access to citizenship for migrants boosts a country’s security dimensions. Citizenship confers loyalty to a country and reflects a commitment to its values. This ease of access to citizenship had been important for Australia but since the mid-2000s it has become harder to for migrants to become citizens.
Mr James Kondo, President of the Asia Pacific Initiative, concluded the Symposium by thanking the panellists, organisers and the audience for participating in the discussion. He emphasised that such joint discussions were only the beginning of a longer and needed conversation.