[Analytics] How immigration will change Japanese politics

Workers from Thailand work at Green Leaf farm in Showa Village, Gunma Prefecture, Japan, 6 June 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Malcolm Foster). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The Japanese government has revised the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law that could expand the entry of non-skilled foreign workers into the Japanese workforce. The law introduces the Specified Skilled Worker Category 1, opening up new professional fields for unskilled foreign workers. It is expected to attract around 345,000 workers in the next 5 years. Nobuhiro Aizawa specially for the East Asia Forum.

Fourteen professional sectors suffering from labour shortages were chosen for the scheme, including aged care, construction, agriculture and tourism. The law also entitles these non-skilled workers to a path to permanent residency should they pass professional testing and successfully renew their status.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) finalised a draft law after electing Abe as Chairman for his third term in September 2018. It passed through parliament — where the LDP holds a majority — in December 2018 and took effect in April 2019.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasised the urgency of the new policy, explaining the need to save ailing but strategic industries and address the aging local economy. But the revised immigration control act was much more than an economic policy, and it divided public and political opinion.

Objections to the law came from both the opposition and from within the LDP itself. According to The Nikkei polls, the law garnered more backing from supporters of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan than from LDP supporters. Hidden disagreements were evident among party members — between generations and regions. These political fault lines signalled the beginning of a new politics of immigration in Japan and could become a critical turning point in Japanese politics. There are three areas that will likely become key battlegrounds.

First, the terms ‘foreign workers’ and ‘immigration’ have become selling points in Japanese politics. The more strongly the government refused to frame the revision act as an ‘immigration law’, the more it stimulated strong anti-immigration platforms and silent social discontent towards the issue.

An unprecedented five-day scrutiny by the legal commission of the LDP in October 2018 attempted to address various concerns. These included Japanese nationals having to compete for jobs against foreigners, the lack of necessary social arrangements and legal protection to prevent an increase in illegal workers, and the absence of social security for foreign workers. With these questions left unanswered, the government has been pushed onto the defensive and any violation, abuse or misconduct by foreign workers can be politicised as a weapon to attack the leadership.

Second, this opened up new political fronts for central–local and local–local government relations. The purpose of the law is to meet the needs of small- and medium-sized enterprises in some regions and to maintain their political support by addressing their needs. Local LDP branches from prefectures such as Gunma, Shizuoka and Akita gave significant input to convince LDP executives of the demand for unskilled foreign workers. Yet the rules outlining administrative and social burden sharing in accepting foreign workers are yet to be determined.

This increased some local governments’ concerns about the policy’s feasibility despite the main beneficiaries being regional businesses. Regions with high demands for foreign workers also lacked sufficient budgets to provide public services for these new migrant workers. The government needs to find a new equilibrium between power and burden sharing. This process of striking a suitable power arrangement will also become an important part of the political agenda in the coming decades.

Third, the law marked the emergence of an inescapable new foreign policy issue. Japan will now increasingly be ‘tested’ in its responsibility to protect foreign workers on home soil. This requires information sharing and administrative harmonisation between the sending and receiving countries. Overseas worker joint management will become a reoccurring topic of negotiation in all bilateral and regional talks. For example, in July 2019, in signing a memorandum of cooperation on overseas workers with Indonesia, Japan committed to following Indonesian systems for placement and administration services for Indonesian migrant workers.

Evidently, Japan is willing to be led and evaluated by its counterparts on foreign worker management. The growing interdependency between the demand for foreign workers and appropriate administrative standards could become a new platform through which to integrate Asian countries. Yet it could also become a liability as countries may need to balance domestic xenophobia with friendly bilateral relations. It will take diplomatic savviness on the Japanese side to achieve this balance.

Considering the political climate in 2018, prioritising speed over consensus building might have been the only way to push this sensitive policy forward before it was too late to address labour shortages. Yet without public consensus and an adequate social safety net for foreigners, Japanese resilience towards immigration scandals is in doubt.

The abuse and misuse of foreign workers by Japanese enterprises, politicians exploiting the imperfect institutional arrangements, misconduct by foreign workers or a single terrorist act could sensationally fuel the anti-immigration movement in Japan. The strong leadership that pushed this historical law forwards has also pushed Japan’s politics on to a new tightrope.

Nobuhiro Aizawa is Associate Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, Kyushu University, and a Japan Fellow at the Wilson Center, Washington DC.

This article is abridged from a version that appears in the most recent issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan’s Leadership Moment’, Vol. 11, No. 3.

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