Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is stuck between a rock and hard place over the country's labor policy as not addressing serious worker shortages will slow down the Japanese economy, and the achievements of his economic policy mix could be lost, while accepting foreign workers in haste will alienate his core supporters on the right side of the political spectrum.
The package of draft revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, submitted by the government to the Diet, is a major turnaround for Japan's immigration policy, which has turned down the acceptance of menial workers. The package, however, does not provide a long-term vision for Japanese society where Japanese and foreign residents have to live together. We suspect that this lack of vision stems from the prime minister.
Accepting a wide range of foreign workers to alleviate labor shortages is not an issue that popped up out of the blue. In 2014, a government-set strategy to revive Japan said a review would be made about accepting foreign workers in the medium and long term. In doing so, the report stated, efforts should be made that the new measure is not about accepting immigrants. In response to this strategy, a special committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposed in 2016 to create new residency statuses for foreign workers.
This process coincided with a period in which the "Abenomics" policy centering on financial easing was said to have hit the wall. In 2015, the prime minister announced a new set of policies including a goal to stop nursing care workers leaving their jobs. This addition ended up pressing the government to secure care workers, intensifying internal discussions on accepting more foreign workers.
The government did take some time to release a plan to open the door to workers from abroad. Nevertheless, the administration didn't provide details on the programs needed for their acceptance. The LDP proposal in 2016 already called for the advent of an "era of living together," and pointed to the need to consider educational and social welfare systems for those newcomers.
The prime minister apparently decided to act on the latest revision of the immigration system out of the realistic thinking that economic stability is the foundation of his administration. But presenting the future shape of Japanese society with a certain population of foreigners living in Japan can be perceived as a move toward accepting long-term immigrants, which rightist forces oppose.
It seems that the prime minister is focusing solely on economic necessities, and insists that those new foreign workers are not immigrants, belittling the size of the issue that needs to be undertaken. As a result, the government's plan for accepting more foreign workers has failed to set a long-term vision.
Diet deliberations on the issue should tackle head-on the reality where foreign technical trainees, who are supposed to transfer the experience and expertise they learn in Japan, are actually used as laborers. We expect the ruling and opposition camps to have discussions so that the general public can share the future shape of Japanese society.