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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008

Will open-door immigration plan die after Fukuda?

Staff writer

Japan isn't exactly known as an open country to foreigners, but there was a recent brief ray of hope in June.

News photo
Open-door advocate: Diet lawmaker Hirohiko Nakamura of the Liberal Democratic Party is interviewed this month in Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

The hope was provided by a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who drafted a bold proposal to create a new immigration policy that would raise the population of foreigners in Japan to 10 percent of the overall population in the next 50 years.

The proposal was handed to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, but his sudden resignation announcement Sept. 1 is raising concerns the proposal will be buried by the next prime minister.

"I am disappointed," said lawmaker Hirohiko Nakamura, who helped draft the proposal. In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Nakamura said Fukuda was instrumental in getting the proposal off the ground.

"We got this far because it was Fukuda. . . . Fukuda was willing to listen to the proposal and it was about to move forward."

Japan's immigration policy largely depends on its leader, but when the prime minister keeps changing, consistency goes out the window.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was known for his hawkish views, but his successor Fukuda was relatively open-minded. He even wanted to increase the number of foreign students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020.

The LDP will choose its new leader Monday. The front-runner is LDP Secretary General Taro Aso, who also is known for his hawkish diplomatic views. The new party president will almost certainly become the next prime minister.

"There is no way of knowing what will happen to the proposal," Nakamura said. "Of course, we will keep pushing the proposal no matter who the next leader is. But I am concerned."

The group's report is titled "Proposal For a Japanese-style Immigration Policy." It aims to address the problem of Japan's shrinking population by raising the number of foreign residents. Nakamura was secretary general of team, which was was chaired by former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa.

"The only effective treatment to save Japan from a population crisis is to accept people from abroad," the proposal says. "For Japan to survive, it needs to open its doors as an international state passable to the world and shift toward establishing an 'immigrant nation' by accepting immigrants and revitalizing Japan."

The group's definition of "immigrant" is consistent with that of the United Nations: individuals who have lived outside their home countries for more than 12 months. This includes people on state or corporate training programs, exchange students and asylum seekers.

One major aspect of the proposal, Nakamura explained, is protecting the rights of foreigners in Japan so they can work safely and securely.

"Japanese people are pretending not to see the human rights situation of foreign laborers," Nakamura said. "In a world where even animal rights are protected, how can we ignore the human rights of foreign workers?"

According to data from the Immigration Bureau, the number of registered foreigners in Japan hit a record high of about 2.08 million in 2006. Among them, permanent residents have been increasing, reaching 837,000, or 40 percent, of all registered foreigners.

The LDP proposal says having 10 million foreigners in Japan "is no longer a dream," stating the necessity of providing more education and training opportunities.

Nakamura stressed that not only is the overall population on the decline, the number of working people will shrink dramatically in the near future.

He explained that the 10 percent figure comes from a calculation of how big a labor force Japan will need in 50 years.

"What are politicians doing to solve this problem?" Nakamura asked. "They are at the beck and call of the bureaucrats who are just trying to protect their vested interests."

Nakamura faulted the bureaucrats for not creating a warmer society for foreigners. For example, they don't bring up the poor labor conditions for foreign workers, but when a foreigner is suspected of a crime, the information is spread immediately, Nakamura said.

"Bureaucrats don't want (many foreigners in Japan)," Nakamura said. "Otherwise, it would be so easy (for bureaucrats) to start an educational campaign on living symbiotically with foreigners."

Admitting that lawmakers have also dragged their feet, Nakamura said the key to breaking the vertically structured bureaucrat-led administration is to establish an official "immigration agency" to unify the handling of foreigner-related affairs, including legal issues related to nationality and immigration control.

Those problems are currently managed by various ministers. For example, anything related to immigration goes to the Justice Ministry, labor issues to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, and livelihood in general to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.

"We need to integrate all of the power, and that is why an immigration agency" is necessary, Nakamura said. "If the power is scattered around, we can't move forward."

If this ambitious proposal is to take shape, Japan will need a strong leader, he said.

But he expressed disappointment that none of the five candidates in the LDP presidential election fits the bill.

"The political leaders of the 21st century will be those who can destroy the bureaucrat-led government," Nakamura said.

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