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Japan could look to Australia as it struggles to prepare for more foreign workers

Experts exchange opinions about Australia’s immigration and refugee policy at Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, on July 19, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO/CANBERRA, Australia -- Facing an acute labor shortage due to the low birthrate and a fast graying society, the Japanese government has created a new basic policy to accept more foreign workers. But what does Tokyo need to do in order to prepare for the new immigration wave and what can it learn from other countries? Australia, a country of immigrants, might be able to offer Japan a few lessons.

Japan had more than 1.27 million foreign workers as of October 2017, but that is not enough to alleviate the country's labor crunch. Now the Japanese government aims to bring in over 500,000 more workers in fields such as construction, farming and nursing care by 2025, and Tokyo plans to establish the relevant status of residence for such workers by April 2019.

"It cannot be denied that the government rushed to create the new basic policy in response to strong demands from workers and economic organizations," pointed out Ippei Torii, chairman of the board of Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, a support group for foreign workers.

In addition, Tokyo said in its new basic policy that it is "different from an immigration policy." Torii said that Japan has accepted foreign nationals as "labor resources from overseas, not residents" through its Technical Intern Training Program and exchange student system. "These programs and the government's stance are out of date, compared to international standards," he emphasized.

"I think that we now have the chance to create a proper support system (for foreign workers) led by the government to provide education, welfare and other services," he added.

While countries like Japan are set to accept more foreign workers, other nations are tightening their borders, depending on their economic and political situations.

Australia has a long history of accepting immigrants and created a multiracial and multicultural society, although its immigration program was tightened in 2018.

On average, Australia has accepted some 190,000 permanent immigrants a year and the government and other organizations offer various support measures, including language training, health care and education. Immigrants have contributed to the nation's population growth, which stood at 1.6 percent in 2017, and the government estimates the population will continue to increase due to immigration.

Meanwhile, Australia's new immigration program contains stricter regulations for working visas, such as restricting occupations, requiring greater work experience and high level English skills. According to the government's factsheet on the new policy, the change was to "increase the quality and economic contributions of skilled migrants and address public concerns about the displacement of Australian workers."

Peter Jennings, a former senior adviser to the Australian prime minister and executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, pointed out that the country's population growth has been more rapid than expected.

"We've reached 25 million Australians this year, which the government previously projected might not happen until 2040," he said in a meeting with foreign reporters in Canberra on July 20, adding that the country is continuing to develop infrastructure and offer support measures to accept immigrants.

Griffith University professor Penelope Mathew told The Mainichi, "We are not replacing the aging population through the birthrate, so we need immigration." She was one of the Australian experts who exchanged opinions about the nation's immigration and refugee policy in a meeting held at Australian National University in the capital on July 19.

From Australia's lengthy experience with immigration, Mathew advised that the Japanese government needs to "build better infrastructure and not use immigration as a kind of excuse or a distraction from the real issues you need to face as a government."

(By Richi Tanaka, The Mainichi staff writer)

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