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Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008

JAPAN'S POPULATION DECLINE

Shaping the future as an immigrant nation


Staff writer

OSAKA — It is time Japan realized that in order to deal with its population decline, it must accept 10 million permanent immigrants rather than a small number of migrant laborers, said the country's most prominent advocate of a radical new immigration policy.

"By 2050, Japan's population will have shrunk from the current 127 million to about 90 million, and to about 40 million by the end of the century. By my calculations, we need 10 million new immigrants by midcentury to survive as a nation," Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, said at a recent symposium in Osaka on Japan's future as an immigrant nation.

Over the past few years, as the reality of the combination of a declining birthrate and rapidly aging population set in, politicians, the Justice Ministry, and powerful business lobbies like the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) have offered various proposals on how certain numbers of skilled foreign workers might be admitted.

Estimates by the government, the United Nations and various human rights groups have shown that, in order to maintain current living standards and economic output, Japan will need up to 30 million foreigners by 2050.

But over the past few years, most government proposals for bringing in foreign laborers have emphasized limiting their numbers and the length of time they are allowed to stay.

Sakanaka and other immigration experts worry such thinking will lead to policies that will discourage — rather than encourage — foreign workers from coming to Japan.

Tatsuhiro Nakano, an Osaka-based administrative consultant who works closely with foreigners seeking visas, said the first step toward accepting a large number of immigrants is for lawmakers and policymakers to change the legal framework to better accommodate the record number of foreigners who are already in the country.

"Japan is already a nation of immigrants, with over 2 million registered foreigners last year and nearly 40,000 people annually getting permanent residence. But current immigration laws are designed to control foreigners. There are no effective laws on the books to promote coexistence with foreigners living in Japan," Nakano said.

While many local governments now have policies designed to promote coexistence with foreigners, politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders at both the local and national levels are usually ambivalent about, and often opposed to, introducing new legislation, insisting that what is first needed is a national debate on the social costs of accepting more foreigners.

But Sakanaka said a debate on accepting immigrants, as opposed to foreign workers, is lacking because most politicians, business leaders and the media want to avoid the issue altogether.

"There's lots of talk about how to deal with Japan's aging society, but the necessity of bringing in large numbers of foreign immigrants is taboo in policy circles," he said. "Keidanren just wants fixed-term laborers, while the Diet and bureaucracy don't want to even hear the word 'immigrants' and the media tend to focus on the need for foreign labor, not immigration."

Accepting, and looking after, 10 million immigrants would require a major reorganization of the Immigration Bureau, which is currently part of the Justice Ministry. Sakanaka has proposed creation of a new Immigration Agency, an independent, Cabinet-level organ to handle such an influx of new immigrants.

But immigration experts like Nakano and Tokyo-based administrative consultant Yukio Enomoto said there is much the current Immigration Bureau can do to speed up the entry of foreigners into Japanese society.

"In Tokyo, it can take the Immigration Bureau up to a year or more to process permanent residency applications, which is far too long," Enomoto said.

Foreign students who graduate from Japanese universities or technical schools and seek to work in Japan often find jobs, but are sometimes unable to take them because Immigration will refuse to grant work visas, Nakano said.

"I dealt with one case where Immigration refused to grant a visa to a Chinese university graduate who found work at a Japanese company because they said the company had no connection to China," Nakano said. "Immigration's stance toward foreign students seeking work in Japan often seems to be 'go home,' and that has to change."

Sakanaka said that, while the current immigration procedures are not without problems, and while national debate on immigration is needed, it is also important that Japan's political leadership create an immigration policy for the future.

"There is a lot of opposition in (the bureaucracy and government) to the idea of large numbers of foreign immigrants. To overcome the opposition, what's needed is a prime minister who will be proactive on accepting large numbers of immigrants," he said.



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