“Side door for immigrants”

My area of specialization is intercultural communication, and I am particularly interested in and working on research and education on intercultural society in Japan. How should we work together with people who have different cultural backgrounds? That is a challenge which the entire society needs to think about.

There have been reports in the news that the government becomes more active about matters related to foreigners, such as the revision of the Immigration Control Act (the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act).

In our daily lives, we can also feel that more people from abroad are working in Japan. Nowadays, it is usual for us to see them working in convenience stores and restaurants.

According to “the Employment Status of Foreign Nationals” which is published by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the number of foreign workers as of the end of October 2022 was about 1.823 million, which is a record high. The number was 718,000 in 2013, which means the number increased 2.53 times in 10 years.

In the background, in addition to the progress of globalization, the Japanese government has a policy to increase the number of foreign residents to support the workforce in the face of the decreasing working population caused by the declining birthrate and an aging population.

For a long time, Japan had been a country of emigrants which sends out people abroad. However, around the 1980s, it changed to a country of immigrants, where people from abroad started to flow in. Since then, it has been adopting proactive policies such as the relaxation of residency status and creation of frameworks through the revision of the Immigration Control Act, and the promotion of accepting foreign students.

For example, the “300,000 Foreign Students Plan”, which was announced by the government in 2008, presented a viewpoint to promote not only the organization of the support system to assist foreign student life but also the employment and settlement of foreign students in Japan as highly-skilled foreign professionals after graduation or completion.

Certainly, as a result of this, the number of students from abroad increased rapidly, but in reality, we cannot deny the aspect that they became a means to secure an inexpensive workforce which the Japanese economic community hoped for.

This 300,000 Foreign Students Plan, which treats them as virtual workers by letting them enter the country with a purpose other than employment, can be called a “side door for immigrants” in the sense that they do not go through the front entrance.

However, in fact, the number of acceptances of foreign workers is consistently increasing. From spring to summer 2023, various topics were brought up, including implementation of an additional policy to accept highly-skilled professionals and a policy to revise the system related to the residency status of fourth-generation Japanese who reside abroad.

What was remarkable among them was that in June the government made a cabinet decision to expand the applicable industry fields of “Specified Skill Worker (ii).”

By this, the Specified Skill Worker (ii), which was limited to the two fields of construction industry and shipbuilding and ship machinery industry, will be considerably expanded to 11 fields, including agriculture and fishery.

Expanding the applicable fields of the Specified Skill Worker (ii)

Expansion of the Specified Skill Worker (ii) criteria is thought to have high possibility to be paired with the abolition of existing technical intern training programs.

Originally, the technical intern training programs started with the aim of “technology transfer to developing countries” as an international contribution. However, firstly, problems such as low wages and overtime emerged one after another, and the system deviated from the reality. Secondly, since they could only work for a limited period (as renewal of the period of stay was impossible), it deviated from the needs of both employers and employees.

On the other hand, Specified Skill Worker is a new residency status created in 2019, and it encourages foreigners to be employed in the industry fields lacking workforce, such as nursing care and building cleaning. While the Specified Skill Worker (i) can only stay for five years and cannot bring their family members with them, the Specified Skill Worker (ii), who require more advanced skills, can renew the period of stay without limitation, and they are also allowed to bring their family members with them. In other words, it is a mechanism by which they can stay in Japan semi-permanently if they meet certain conditions.

What we can glimpse from the shift from the technical intern training to specified skill workers is the basic idea of the Japanese government accepting workers from abroad more widely and letting them work in Japan for a relatively long time, and when the conditions match, offer them permanent residency status. Although the government stresses that it is not “immigration” it is obvious that it is virtually a kind of immigration policy.

In practice, acceptance of highly-skilled professionals itself is indeed a necessary policy in terms of gaining global competitiveness for Japan, which has a super-aging society. However, in the first place, shouldn’t the focus of discussion be the issue of whether they, who have a connection with foreign countries, can be accepted as a member of the community in current Japanese society?

I feel like the “policy on foreigners” of the Japanese government is only required to secure the workforce, and the discussion of resolving real challenges of foreigners in the place or community that they actually live in, or resolving their various difficulties in Japanese society, is completely missing.

They are lumped together as foreign workers. However, they who come from different countries and areas from Japan are facing a different culture and customs. For example, what is the position of females in society?

In the 2023 version of the Global Gender Gap Report, which is annually published by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranked the 125th among 146 countries. Especially in terms of participation in politics and the economy, Japan ranks at an extremely low level in gender equality.

In fact, the actual feeling of “Japan is a difficult country for women to work in” is an opinion which always appears during the survey and analysis of life career covering Chinese women who used to be foreign students, which is my research, or conversations among foreign students who belong to my seminar.

If they come to Japan from countries or regions where women are treated more equally as men, perhaps they will feel a wider gap when they are working in Japan (Japanese company). It is very much possible that it will not become a working environment where they can display their competence and thus they cannot settle in the workplace because they cannot combine it with childrearing, and then they have to go back to their home country.

Or, what about the case of a youngster who was originally a technical intern switching to the Specified Skill Worker (i), and then advancing to Specified Skill Worker (ii), and then aims to obtain permanent residency? As it will take at least 10 years, if the person grows older and starts a family, a newly born child will be raised in Japan.

However, currently, preparation to accommodate such children is not sufficient. To make matters worse, Japanese public schools are suffering from a lack of teachers, and in many cases, children linked to foreign countries speak a language other than Japanese at home, and they might fall behind linguistically. However, we must say that the measures to tackle this at educational sites are lagging behind.

Immigrants are not just workers

As various experts and supporters have already pointed out, the educational problem of children connected to foreign countries has been left unaddressed as a challenge for a long time.

I also have been conducting field work at a school during the study of Japanese-Brazilian children in the past. The number of Japanese-Brazilians increased considerably after the 1989 revision of the Immigration Control Act (implemented in 1990), and there were 300,000 or more in Japan at one point.

What has been a societal issue since that time is the problem of children’s fushugaku (out-of-school). Fushugaku is different from futoko (not attending school), the situation in which children stop going to school for some reasons, but instead, it indicates the situation in which they are not registered at schools in the first place.

In the 1990s, also because of the aftermath of the bubble economy, Japanese-Brazilians who pursued jobs were arranged by agents, etc., and came to Japan in groups, and formed communities in different areas. Then, they were in the situation in which they continuously moved from one area to another, to a place with a higher wage.

Therefore, there were quite a few cases in which they did not change their resident registrations, or were not in time, and thus, although children had reached the school age, municipalities did not contact them, or even if they did receive the notification to enroll in school, they could not read Japanese. For these reasons, there were many children who did not receive education at school.

Moreover, although it has been 30 years since this social issue emerged, it has still not been entirely resolved.

According to a survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, as of May 1, 2022, there were 136,923 children of foreigners who were registered on the Basic Resident Register and were of school age. Among them, 8,183 children may be unenrolled in school. The number decreased a little from the previous survey (2021), but it is possible that still about 6% of children who have a link with a foreign country are not able to go to school.

Japan’s virtual immigration policy is increasingly broadening its scope of acceptance and trying to shift to a path of future settlement. They are not just workers. At the same time they are people living life and will be people who live together in the same Japanese society.

On the other hand, unfortunately, human beings tend to exclude foreign existence from the majority group. In current Japan, Japanese are the overwhelming majority, and foreigners or people connected to foreign countries are the minority.

I think that both the behavior of excluding them unilaterally and the attitude of accepting them optimistically are wrong. What we should aim for is a society which includes the lives of people with various backgrounds. Each one of us is asked to face these mounting challenges.

* The information contained herein is current as of September 2023.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.