In recent months, the Japanese cabinet and important affiliated advisory committees are discussing a more active immigration policy and the acceptance of more foreign workers in order to boost Japan's long-term economic growth. Concretely, it has been proposed in policy making circles to enlarge the foreign trainee program and to open up new job categories for foreign workers like for example home helpers. The supporters hope that such an opening of the Japanese labour market will allow to overcome the predicted labour shortage in construction for realizing the infrastructure of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and to allow more highly qualified Japanese women to combine work and family. If these proposals are realized, they would mark another important step of Japan from an immigration country to an immigration state.
Already in the late 1980s, Japan has been transformed into an immigration country. Although the share of foreign residents is with less than 2% still today in international comparison very low, Japan has already for over a quarter-century a highly continuous immigration flow of foreign workers. In fact, in absolute numbers of yearly net immigrants, Japan is one of the important migration destination among OECD countries. As many Western societies before it, Japan has struggled for years to cope with this new reality as immigration country. Officially its immigration policy is restrictive by accepting only highly qualified foreign workers in some professional fields, which are explicitly defined in Japan's immigration law. Still, Japan has also three important side-doors through which foreign workers are entering the Japanese labour market in other sectors than those professional fields. First, since starting active recruitment of foreign students in the 1980s, most foreign students are working part-time and have become a crucial part of the work force in the urban service sector (convenience stores, restaurants etc.). Second, since 1991, nikkeijin (Japanese emigrants and their descendants up to the third generation) are exceptionally granted a renewable working visa and play a crucial role as highly flexible blue-collar workers in Japan's leading export industries. Third, in the early 1990s, Japan's foreign trainee program was expanded and enlarged and is since then a undeclared guest worker program for small and medium enterprises (SME) in many declining industries. Hence, about 90% of all foreign workers in Japan are de facto active in a job that is not included in the professional fields of highly qualified workers stipulated by the immigration law. In other words, in Japan like in many Western societies exists a clear gap between the official immigration policy and real immigration movements. Moreover, for decades, these immigration movements were, however, not accompanied by a national integration policy. Without any support from the central government, local authorities had to try to accommodate foreign workers as denizen. Eventually in 2009, after strong pressure from local governments and civil society, national administration has started to introduce first steps of an integration policy on national level. This marks the beginning of the transformation of Japan from an immigration country, in which immigration is de facto happening, to an immigration state that is actively handling immigration as part of its policy sets.
In mass media and scientific publications, Japan's immigration policy is often simply attributed to the dominance of ethnonationalism and the preference of conservative elites to maintain an ethnically highly homogeneous society. However, such a view is much too simple and does not justice to the complex reality of Japan's immigration policy. As a start for a better understanding of the Japan's immigration policy, the regional context in East Asia has to be taken into consideration. For decades after the Second World War, East Asia had been a non-migration region with very small regional migration movements. However, from the mid-1970s onwards, migration into other regions (Anglo-Saxon immigration nations in the New World as well as oil exporting countries in the Middle East) and new migration movements in the region itself led to the re-establishment of East Asia as migration region. The transformation of Japan into an immigration country in the late 1980s is also primarily due to this new regional context. Before the first oil price shock around 1970, Japan experienced a severe labour shortage, but this led not to new labour immigration because Japan was, at the time, still a relatively isolated country in a region without large migration movements. During the years of the bubble economy in the late 1980s, again a labour shortage emerged in Japan (although not as severe as around 1970). Japan was now much more economically and politically integrated into the region and recognized as a advanced economy with good income opportunities for foreign workers. Moreover, economic development and in East and South East Asia had led to a geographically mobile workforce and a migration industry in many developing and semi-developed economies. Hence, the regional embeddedness in a new migration region coupled with the renewed labour shortage led to new irregular labour immigration movements to Japan and transformed it into an immigration country.
In the late 1980s and earl 1990s, this irregular labour immigration led to a first immigration debate, in which it was controversially discussed how Japan should react to these new immigration flows. Public debates as well as discussion in policy making circles were not characterized ethnonationlism as leading idea. On the contrary, conflicting policy proposals were based on a large number of perspectives and ideas. This ideational diversity was further amplified and accelerated by a policy making process, which was highly fragmented and without a leading centre. The bureaucracy was the by far most influential actor in the policy making process, but even between ministries and agencies that shared the same basic view on immigration like the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labour fierce conflicts arose and no ministries could attain a dominant position. This policy process led finally on the one hand to a reconfirmation of the basic standpoint that Japan accepted only highly qualified foreign workers (although the number of professional fields was enlarged). On the other hand, the above described side-door policy were introduced in highly conflicting and muddled policy making processes. As mentioned above, Japan's immigration policy is marked by a gap between official policy and real immigration. But in the case of Japan, this discrepancy is not due to a limitation of the nation state to effectively control immigration movements. The main factor behind this discrepancy is an ideational and institutional fragmentation of Japan's immigration policy. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that regarding immigration policy, the Japanese state in the meaning of a comprehensive and strategically planning actor does not exist due to this ideational and institutional fragmentation.
This fragmentation did also not change during the second immigration debate from the late 1990s to the economic crisis of autumn 2008. While immigration movements continued unabated during the 1990s, the first immigration debate ended in parallel to the economic stagnation after the sudden burst of the speculation bubbles in the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, in view of Japan's long-term demographic development and foreseeable labour shortage, a second debate on immigration started. In contrast to the first immigration debate, this time politicians were the leading actors and a number of comprehensive and even revolutionary reforms were proposed. Immigration policy was no longer simply seen as a reactive measure following developments forced on Japan, but as a strategic instrument in order to secure Japan's future. One proposal in June 2008 by a group of about 80 parliamentarians of the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) under the leadership of Nakagawa Hidenao wanted even to transform Japan into an immigration nation that would accept up to 2050 about 10 millions immigrants to compensate for the shrinking population. Still, also this second debate was marked by internal fragmentation, primarily among politicians. While some argued for more immigration in order to secure Japan's economic future, others connected more immigration to (foreign) criminality and a degradation of public security. Overall, again in parallel to the economic downturn, the debate ended in autumn 2008 without any major, but some small reforms.
Now as a possible element of Abenomics immigration has returned into the policy arena and a third immigration policy debate has started. The reform proposals are for the time being not only rather limited, but some are also misguided. In view of the many and huge problems in the foreign trainee program, it is hardly a sound idea to further enlarge this program. A comprehensive guest worker program coupled with an enhanced national integration policy seems the much more valid policy option. Still, what is new for Japan's immigration policy is that this proposal are discussed in the cabinet and its important advisory committees like the Council of Economic and Financial Policy. Hence, for the first time in the already rather long history of Japan's new immigration policy since the late 1980s, the real opportunity exists that the institutional fragmentation might be overcome through a dominant centre in the policy making process and that a long-term, strategically deliberated immigration policy might be developed. It rest to be seen in the coming months and years, if this opportunity will be taken.
David Chiavacci est titulaire de la chaire Mercator de sciences sociales à l’université de Zurich en Suisse, et spécialiste du Japon. Ses recherches portent sur la sociologie économique, la sociologie politique et la sociologie des connaissances du Japon contemporain. Parmi ses publications récentes: « Divided Society Model and Social Cleavages in Japanese Politics: No Alignment by Social Class, but Dealignment of Rural-Urban Split », Contemporary Japan, 22 (automne, 2010), 47-74., et "Immigration and 'Gap Society' in Japan: Are Foreign Workers a New Underclass?", dans: Gyorgy Szell and Ute Szell (dir.), Quality of Life & Working Life in Comparison, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, pp. 347-368.