Remarks by Consul General Yoichiro Yamada at Japan Update Series: Immigration and Workforce Diversity (February 20, 2018)

Good evening. It is an honor to say a few words this evening. Immigration and workforce diversity is a hotly debated topic, but isn’t a new one. In fact, throughout history, societies have always faced three sets of problems when dealing with both internal and foreign workers: 1) what sorts of people are required as workforce, 2) what status should each category of workers be given in society, and 3) who are desirable as neighbors and citizens. Whether the debate involves “foreigners” or indigenous people, the dilemma between whom you need and whom you want to live with has always been a socially inflammatory issue anywhere in the world. Brexit is a recent example of such a dilemma.

The population of Japan peaked several years ago and today it is decreasing by around 500,000 people a year. An aging society and a scarcity of youth are posing serious questions to the sustainability of the social security system and the future viability of the Japanese economy. The obvious question is whether Japan will open its doors to foreigners to fill in the gap. But, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated in the national parliament two years ago, the Japanese government does not have an immigration policy, nor does Japan receive new foreigners as permanent residents.

According to Keidanren, an association of leading businesses, Japan today faces workforce shortages in three respects. First, there is a shortage of nursing staff and caretakers for the elderly. Second, due to a lack of successors, professional skills and knowledge cannot be passed on to the next generation. Third, the global technological competition dictates the increasing need for an inward flow of foreign talent. Keidanren concludes that Japan needs to actively receive foreign workers in these areas, and recommends the government to review its restrictive policies and create conditions to attract a foreign workforce. However, there are louder voices insisting that we should address the shortage by actively introducing AI and robots, and promoting the participation of women and the elderly in the labor market. They also pose the question that if we do open our job market to foreigners, what will they do when their contract comes to an end: will they return to their countries or will we allow them to extend their work permit and open the way to be a permanent resident?

According to advocates of immigration, there are three major merits to welcoming immigrants. First, they bring diversity, i.e. fresh ideas and talents, into the society. Second, they are young and therefore become net contributors to society by paying taxes that support the social security system. Third, because they are young, they tend to be active consumers and stimulate the economy. In these respects, immigrants bring dynamism to the society and economy. Robots cannot be expected to contribute to consumption, even though, as Mr. Bill Gates advocates, they may one day pay taxes.

On the other hand, those who are against immigration argue that foreigners will deprive the natives of employment opportunities and lower wages. It is also argued that immigrants will alter the comfortable fabric of society, leading to the loss of the nation’s cultural and social identity.

These two different roles of immigrants, as a workforce in economic policy debate and as residents in social policy debate, are usually discussed individually but are often inseparable. The immigrants want to work and also live in the country. Another question then arises: how do you treat the accompanying family members? Do you open the labor market to them as well? Should the society welcome a skilled engineer but refuse the spouse the right to work? And what happens if a foreign wife is divorced by a husband and the young children are ordered by court to stay in the country of the father, no matter how strong the bond between the mother and children? Should the mother, a foreigner, return to her country without children, or should she be allowed to stay and work in the country? This is no longer just an economic or social issue, but a human rights issue.

Therefore, the issue of immigration is not just about whether you accept foreign workers under certain conditions, but the issue, in my opinion, inevitably invites the question of how you accept and treat the entire families.

These are very tough issues. The issue of immigration has been controversial and intractable throughout history and continues to be today. Successive Chinese dynasties have built the Great Wall to deny the people they regarded as barbarians an access to mainland China. Today President Trump is trying to build a physical wall on the US-Mexico border. I am looking forward to the discussion this evening.

Thank you for your attention.