Japan is looking for new ways to woo foreigners, hoping to blunt the impact of its declining population and labor pool. Just last week, the government proposed a significant change that would expand visa opportunities for blue-collar foreign workers eager to live here long-term. The proposal enables laborers in specific industries to upgrade their original status from a visa with a hard five-year limit to one that can be renewed indefinitely. It also allows such migrants to bring family members into the country, an option not previously available to this class of imported workers.
This policy comes on the heels of another update that greatly simplified entry requirements for highly skilled workers seeking employment in Japan. Even with these enhancements, Japan will have a difficult time attracting foreigners, especially since it needs to compete with other countries suffering the same population woes. To draw sufficient talent, the nation must offer something of value to foreigners pondering a cross-ocean move. Japan has traditionally been tightfisted when it comes to granting residency status. With these new visa changes, the government realizes—correctly—that long-term residency is a mandatory benefit. But it needs to go further.
Anyone considering a move to another country will want assurances that they aren’t going be kicked out halfway through their prime working years and won’t need to grapple with endless barriers to advancement. While some younger workers may have a short, fun stay in mind, those with families or those looking to apply and enhance their professional skillset will require a more stable, long-term situation. What these new arrivals seek is to be treated like valued, long-term immigrants who have a part to play in their new homeland.
I looked up the definition of “immigration” in a very reliable source, and here is what that Wikipedia page said: “Immigration is the international movement of people to a destination country…in order to settle as permanent residents or naturalized citizens” (emphasis added). These international transplants desire to set down roots, raise children, become financially stable, and integrate into their new community. It’s not easy, especially with language and cultural barriers. But they move anyway, confident that at least the government and necessary services will be structured in a way that makes integration possible.
Unfortunately, some immigrants who move to Japan discover that they are restricted from engaging in everyday life activities, such as opening a bank account during their first six months or signing up for certain types of cell phone contracts. Getting a home loan, though not impossible, is way more difficult than it needs to be for anyone lacking permanent residency. Even a basic credit card or debit card (!) can be withheld for years for seemingly arbitrary reasons. These restrictions have downstream impacts, such as hindering access to an ETC transportation card or certain online services that require payment with a domestic credit card.
Japan’s discomfort with immigrants appears to be linked to cultural preservation. The country has a deep, rich culture, and the idea of a bunch of foreigners coming in and polluting sacred traditions or defying daily standards seems like a step too far, even to buoy a dwindling population. Seen this way, Japan’s strictness on immigration is a type of purity test, keeping out those who don’t belong. This may seem offensive in an age of tolerance, but even if viewed as legitimate, it has the unintended consequence of pushing away the very people who would be a net benefit to the nation, the foreigners that Japan should be embracing.
Two weeks ago, I had coffee with a British national who moved to Japan a few years back. He only planned to do a bit of tourism, but from the moment he stepped off the plane, he realized that “this is the country I had been seeking all my life.” He quickly initiated steps to acquire a long-term residency in Japan. For some, his decision may seem like a whim, and in theory he could just as quickly exit Japan for Vietnam or New Zealand or Spain or any other country that would have him. But given his current determination to make Japan his home, why not do everything you can to make his stay as productive and as beneficial as possible, both for him and for Japan? As it stands now, I have heard too many heartbreaking stories from people who came to Japan with a passion for residing here only to leave a few years later dejected and sullen, frustrated at the constant roadblocks that kept them from living a normal life.
It doesn’t need to be this way. While immigration is not a cure-all, it can still be a blessing during the demographic complexities of the next few decades. To secure those blessings, systems must be adjusted to make basic immigrant services as frictionless as possible. I applaud government leaders for streamlining and right-sizing visa standards. Beyond those updates, there are three key changes that Japan can make to help foment a healthy immigrant community.
1. Standardize Residency Rules. The six-month banking restriction I mentioned earlier is just one of many rules that withhold services to newcomers until they have met some arbitrary time limit. Japan already has an organization that is highly skilled at determining when someone is a resident: the Immigration Services Agency, part of the Ministry of Justice. This is the arm of the government that approves all visa applications and issues official documentation for foreign residents. Given how rigorous its processes are, there is no reason for banks to use a different standard when determining who should have an account. If the immigration agency says someone is a resident, that should be good enough for Japan Post Bank. In the same way, all utilities, contracts, and services that use residency as a barrier should defer to the Immigration Services Agency’s definition of who is a resident.
2. If Someone Wants to Work, Let Them Work. Just because someone has residency, it doesn’t mean they can apply for a job, or switch to a new industry, or change from part-time to full-time employment, or start their own company. Different visa classes have different restrictions, and Japan strictly enforces its rules. The Ministry of Justice web site (using its automated English translation service) even says, “If you work beyond the scope of permission, you may not be able to renew your period of stay. Let’s watch out.” There may be legitimate reasons for governments to control employment access, but Japan is going through a major labor shortage right now. There is no fear that a foreigner is going to take someone else’s job. As it stands now, nobody is taking that job. Employment also brings the benefit (for the government) of taxation, new income to offer services to residents, especially to elderly Japanese who increasingly rely on government services. The current crop of restrictions says to immigrants, “Don’t get too financially comfortable; you won’t be staying that long anyway.” It is time to reevaluate the employment limits and see if lifting some of them can benefit Japan.
3. Upgrade Japanophile Residents to Immigrants. This third change, I admit, will be hard to define and even harder to implement. Basically, if someone is on a path toward permanent residency and has a strong desire to live in Japan long-term, they should be given the benefit of the doubt. A good example is home loans. I spoke with several real estate agents and banks recently, and they all said that someone lacking permanent residency would have difficulty getting the kind of loan offered to Japanese citizens. Of course, a bank must perform due diligence in assessing the risk level of potential clients. But currently, having any status other than “permanent resident” is an automatic out, even if that person would be an excellent loan client in all other respects. I can understand why a company might withhold services for those who have that five-year-maximum flavor of visa. But for anyone who has already renewed to a new three- or five-year visa and is adamant about remaining in Japan, businesses should actively engage these residents.
The decline in population is already impacting Japan, and dealing with immigrant issues may seem like one more in a long list of bothersome problems. But foreign residents, especially those who have dreamed for years of living here, can be a net benefit for Japan, both now and for years to come. Now is a great time for Japan to welcome these new neighbors.
[Image Credits: maroke/photo-ac.com]