Foreign Workers: Unwanted but Vital

The history of nationalism in Japan is different from other Asian countries, which is partly because Japan was never colonized by western powers, and was instead quite removed from international affairs between the mid-seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Due to pressure from occupation authorities in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as well as a newly rewritten pacifist Constitution, Japanese nationalism became directly linked with pacifism. However, more overt nationalism in Japan quickly emerged in the 1950s, soon after the end of American occupation, and has steadily grown since that time. This new nationalism has been closely tied with cultural belonging, a reflection of the cultural and ethnic homogeneity present in Japan; only two percent of Japan’s population is not ethnically Japanese. Japan’s nationalism makes it difficult for the country to accept immigrants, which are a crucial factor in Japan’s swiftly declining population.

Japan’s population has been shrinking at a steadily accelerating rate since 2008, losing hundreds of thousands of people per year, and this has a wide range of disastrous side effects that will only get worse if the trend continues. At the heart of the problems are the decrease in the number of people who are working age; close to 90% of employers in Japan experience difficulty in finding skilled workers, the highest rate in the world. Fewer workers means a stagnating economy, and a stagnating economy means a greater number of people surviving on welfare and living in poverty, as well as diminishing influence and significance on the international stage. The economic stagnation in Japan has also resulted in various attempts to reinvigorate the economy in the past few years, which have not had much positive effect and have mostly served to drastically raise the national debt to 250% of the GDP. Thus, the Japanese government has had to look to other means of supporting the economy and growing elderly population.

The current solution: bring in foreign workers to boost industries with labor shortages, especially elder care. Because of the exclusionary nature of nationalism in Japan, this has been made much more difficult for government policy makers. Over the past 10 years, the number of foreign workers has tripled from 500,000 to 1,500,000, and a policy introduced last year plans to add another 350,000 foreign workers to that number by 2025. However, because of societal pressures, the government has been unwilling to call this an immigration policy, and very few of these foreign workers have the chance to become permanent residents in Japan.

Additionally, due to nationalistic sentiment, treatment of foreign workers has been extremely poor. Although recently reformed, the program for training foreign workers has been criticized and sued several times for mistreatment of trainees, including subjecting trainees to harsh conditions. There is no reprieve for foreign workers once they are a part of the workforce, either. Foreign workers are not given as many overtime hours, tend to make less money than promised, and are in general treated by employers and coworkers as second class citizens. In 2017, the Labor Standards Inspections office found that out of nearly 6,000 employers visited who employed foriegn workers, more than 70% violated labor standards.

Japan’s nationalistic exclusion also has broader future consequences for its foreign labor market. Nationalism has caused Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister until three months ago, to pursue a more activist foreign policy, with one of his goals over the past few years having been strengthening Japan’s military might. A result of this was relations slipping with nearby Asian countries like China and South Korea. This gave Abe more freedom in his actions, as it meant a diminished importance of sentiments in Beijing and Seoul in the minds of Japanese citizens. It has also caused many Japanese citizens to believe that China and South Korea pose military threats to Japan. This is a problem when China has long been the largest supplier of foreign workers to Japan.

Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese Prime Minister since September 14 of this year, has been left with a precarious situation perpetuated by the problematic anti-immigration sentiment. As his term unfolds, he will have the challenging task of ensuring the avoidance of an economic collapse. It remains to be seen how he will do so, and whether Suga will choose to abide by the public naturalist view, challenge it, or try to change it.

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