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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Japan told to look to Europe for ideas on immigrant policy

Staff writer

HAKONE, Kanagawa Pref. -- As Japan debates whether to bring in large numbers of foreign workers, it should look at how the European Union countries formulate national immigration policy and the EU's overall migrant worker strategy.

News photo
Hugh Richardson (left), head of the European Commission delegation to Japan, addresses an April 7-8 conference in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, on immigration policy also attended by journalist Yoshinori Imai, who served as a moderator, and Philippe de Bruycker, a professor at Free University of Brussels. EUROPEAN COMMISSION DELEGATION TO JAPAN PHOTO

That was the message delivered by EU and Japanese officials to nearly 20 journalists in Japan and from European countries who participated in an April 7-8 conference in Hakone sponsored by the European Commission delegation in Japan.

The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty established a legal framework to create an integrated immigration policy within the EU. The road from the general treaty to specific recommendations has proved bumpy. But Philippe de Bruycker, a professor at Free University of Brussels, said progress has been made.

"The EU has accepted the idea of a long-term residence directive, which is like the 'permanent residency' category in Japan. The EU has agreed that, after five years of legal residence, foreign workers can enjoy nearly the same legal status as EU citizens and will be protected against expulsion," de Bruycker said.

However, he added, there is no consensus yet on how to manage immigrants who have been in the EU for less than five years. The 27 EU member states also have yet to reach an agreement on what kind of immigrants to accept -- nor on how many should be accepted.

In Japan, it has only been within the past few years that the central government has seriously started to consider the idea of using large numbers of foreign workers to make up for the coming labor shortage.

By 2050, Japan's total population is forecast to fall from about 127 million at present to about 100 million. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry predicts the labor force, defined as the number of people between the ages of 15 and 65, will decrease from 67 million to about 44 million over the same span.

To make up for the labor shortage, the government is emphasizing more employment of the elderly and the women. While a few ministries -- notably the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry and the Justice Ministry -- have called for limited immigration, few politicians have spoken publicly on the issue.

"Both Japan and Europe are working to cope with aging populations and declining birthrates. While the Japanese business community is taking a positive stance on immigration, in Japanese political circles, opinion remains divided and a comprehensive immigration policy has yet to be developed," said Hugh Richardson, head of the EC delegation.

Japan currently has a little more than 2 million registered foreigners. Of these, about 598,000 are resident Koreans and 519,000 are Chinese. They are known as "oldcomers" because they, their parents or their grandparents had arrived in Japan by the years right after World War II.

More than 300,000 are from Brazil and are referred to as "newcomers" because most of them -- many with Japanese ancestry -- came to Japan in the 1990s.

Official and unofficial projections predict that to maintain gross domestic product at its current size and today's standard of living, Japan will have to bring in at least 3 million, and possibly as many as 30 million, foreign workers over the coming decades.

And yet Masanori Naito, a professor at Hitotsubashi University and an expert on immigration issues in Europe, said Japanese policymakers in business and the government still do not want to discuss the prospect of mass immigration.

"In Japan, there is no concept of an 'immigrant.' Therefore, there is no such thing, officially, as an 'immigrant policy,' like that of the EU. Rather, there is a policy to deal with 'aliens,' not 'immigrants,' " he said.

One organization that has offered detailed proposals for bringing in foreign workers is the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), the nation's largest business lobby. Under its plan, specific sectors would be targeted, and foreign laborers meeting the qualifications for such jobs could be hired overseas and brought to Japan after some language training.

Many of Keidanren's proposals, originally released in 2004 and updated last month, call on central and local government officials as well as the employers themselves to ensure the human rights of foreign workers. The proposals have been welcomed by some human rights activists in Japan as an important step toward a national policy on foreign workers.

However, Hiroshi Inoue, Keidanren's director of international affairs, made it clear the association sees foreign workers as temporary employees -- not permanent residents.

"We cannot say we don't want the workers to settle in Japan," Inoue said. "But in terms of formulating a policy for the introduction of foreign laborers, we are assuming there will be a rotation system. I don't think it's likely that the majority of foreign workers will want to settle in Japan, so the assumption is that they will return to their home countries after a certain period."

Keidanren's policy assumes that highly skilled workers will, after first learning Japanese and agreeing to come to Japan for a few years, return to their own country, where wages might be much lower than Japan, after their contract expires. This assumption invited criticism from a number of attendees at the Hakone conference.

"A system of rotating workers in and out of the country will not work. Sociologically, foreign workers are already immigrants once they arrive in Japan. We shouldn't look at them as just laborers. We have to view them as human beings first, and it's time for policymakers to do that," said Yoichiro Mizukami, a former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau.

Some in the government and the private sector have looked at Germany's policy toward Turkish immigrant labor as a possible solution here. But Claude Moraes, a member of the European Parliament, warned Japan against this.

The German program of the 1960s also initially assumed that the "guest" workers would leave after a few years, but many migrants decided to stay and were joined in Germany by their families.

"The guest worker model Germany tried has failed. Germany got the labor, but the Turkish immigrants don't feel as if they are a part of German society. Japan must avoid adopting an immigration system that results in a two-tiered society. I would suggest that Japan look to the immigration policies of Sweden and Finland, which serve as positive models of how immigrants can integrate into society," Moraes said.

Despite the differences in approach between the EU and Japan, all participants agreed that the media, especially television, play a crucial role in shaping a country's immigration policy.

"If people see successful, law-abiding immigrants on television, it helps promote a positive image of immigrants," Moraes said. "Conversely, negative media coverage of foreign immigrants, or lots of reports of foreign crime, leads to crimes committed by a country's citizens against immigrants."

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