Musings of A Sarariman
Sept - Oct 2015
About two months ago, while I was writing my article for the summer issue, there was a trending topic that was about to be a major issue in the next few months and continue on, an issue that is challenging how to resolve the complex economic situation and the future state of the country due to the aging population and to sustain the country without ever having to rely on outside help. It is about promoting the need to hire foreign labor resources either by hiring them as contract workers on a short term basis or by welcoming them as immigrants for a long term solution. There was even a weekend special program to discuss the pros and cons of the topic and a real time online survey done on a public digital broadcast to assess the initial public reaction or acceptance. Obviously, the general answer was a big No at the moment.
This is not a new issue in Japan because there are already existing examples of communities where foreign labor is being used to the point where in a local town, foreigners occupy a big part of the population (take the example of Oizumi Town in Gunma Prefecture).
The choice to accept foreign labor or not will definitely be a growing concern in light of the imminent domestic labor shortage given the supposedly improving economy and the need to accelerate the infrastructures in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But as we all know, Japan is one of the few countries, if not the only one, among developed economies that is not very open to the use of foreign talents in the domestic labor force. While corporations have struggled to promote foreign recruitment, there is still a huge barrier especially due to the very restrictive immigration laws and policies that hinder many corporations down to struggling farms and small enterprises from accessing foreign labor. The stringent qualification requirements for local employment discourage efficient hiring of skilled foreign professionals. As a result, some companies resort to using ‘low cost’ labor from developing countries disguised as trainee programs and it is very prone to abuse since trainees could only receive reasonable allowances much lower than the regular salaries of regular employees. At the worst, some companies even resort to hiring of illegal immigrants, driving the government to impose stringent penalties to employers.
Although Japan has struggled for years to adapt itself to internationalization or globalization, it seems to be more on an outward manner, that is, for the Japanese to be able to survive in a world of cultural diversity and to be a player in the international arena, the focus was placed more on mastering the English language. Although, I see it the very first step for the Japanese to be able to communicate effectively when they go to the outside world, there are more important things to be a major part of globalization. The topic here about integrating foreign talents into the Japanese local scene is somewhat opposite to the widely known concept of globalization, I kind of coined the term ‘Domestic Globalization’.
While this move is to address the need to replenish the aging work force, on the other hand, the labor market is also focusing on the need to support and care for the aging population. This is manifested in the continuing struggle to increase the number of foreign nurses and caregivers. The demand and supply still doesn’t balance. Success stories are published but it is at a dismal low rate compared to the target that needs to be reached. This will extend further into the construction business as companies rush to build new and renovate aging infrastructure systems. I am still wondering whether it would also reach the area of agriculture of which the younger generation is not keen to work in. Eventually, the idea of introducing foreign talents is in reality to fill the void of the domestic labor force especially in areas where the younger generation distance themselves from the so-called 3K (Kitsui-Kitanai-Kiken = Difficult-Dirty-Dangerous) related work. And while some Japanese companies have publicly announced that they will hire more foreign workers to accelerate globalization of their work forces, the foreign workers are still at a minority level.
In bringing and integrating the foreign labor resources into the local work force, there are two ideas of whether to take them as immigrants or take them on a short term contract basis. Both ideas already exist in different developing countries, although readily accepted but not without problems. But with Japan and the Japanese people always calling themselves as ‘shima-guni’ or an ‘island country’, it only suggests that they are not yet ready for a sudden influx of foreigners. I myself have not seen any in-depth discussions or considerations of how to resolve the integration between immigrants and the local communities where there is a divide and mixed sentiments on how to deal with a different culture. Japan’s immigration laws are set up and revised in a way that policy makers believed would keep the country’s ethnic homogeneity intact. So there was a higher priority to issue visas to foreigners of Japanese descent.
While the country is fighting for survival with the imminent shrinking population, I believe that the Japanese pride doesn’t allow itself yet to yield to the pressure of resorting to foreign ‘aid’, but would rather take a journey of long and exhaustive process of finding a local solution to an internal problem.
While Japan is very attractive to foreigners for its popularity in cutting-edge technologies, both traditional and pop culture, that attractiveness only applies for short-term visitors. Of course, the opportunity to work in Japan is still alluring for foreigners, but from a completely different point of view from the way the Japanese sees it. From my personal point of view, to work in Japan as a foreigner is only a passing point in one’s career. With the present cultural set up and mindset (that is, the working culture, language, etc.) in Japan, to stay here, be accepted and establish one’s career for a lifetime takes more than double the effort compared to working in other countries that are more open to diversity. So, when I saw the televised discussions on public TV, I don’t remember ever seeing a survey on how foreigners in general understand completely what it takes to work here, whether as immigrants or contract workers, and if ever they think they are willing to come here to answer or even be a part of Japan’s own internal problems. Let’s wait and see…