Behind the Scenes with Mami Mizutori

The Japanese immigration dilemma: in or out?

Mami Mizutori, Executive Director
Mami Mizutori, Executive Director

I have just returned from Japan where on this occasion I spent some time in Osaka, the country’s second largest city. Inbound tourism to Japan from neighbouring countries in the region, but not necessarily restricted from there, is growing at an extraordinary pace. I witnessed this phenomenon in Osaka as well which, with apologies to its inhabitants, is not known for beautiful temples or shrines like Kyoto. Osaka is historically known as the commercial centre of Japan and has acquired the nickname, ‘Tenka no daidokoro (the gourmet kitchen of the realm)’, for its varied and somewhat low-brow food culture. This aspect of Osaka seems to be what attracts the tourists. You can observe young couples and families from abroad munching on their squid skewers, savoury spring onion pancakes(okonomi yaki) or octopus balls (tako yaki, which never translates well, but I assure you that they do not contain the anatomical part of the celphalod the word suggests) covered with mayonnaise while strolling around the busy streets. There is no doubt that every city tries to exploit their attractive features for tourists and tries to promote those angles as much as possible – like shopping in Tokyo, sightseeing in Kyoto, and yes eating in Osaka.

International tourism is recognised as one of the driving forces for economic growth and the Japanese government is keen to keep this initiative going. Plans to make foreigners’ experiences in Japan as pleasant and interesting as possible, such as putting up road signs in English, Chinese and Korean, or making announcements in all three languages for public transportation are positive moves in going forward. There still might be some awkward moments when a Japanese sees an excited tourist jumps into a Japanese hot spring bath covered in soap, which is by the way not the proper way to bathe there. But these small ‘accidents’ deriving from cultural differences happen everywhere, and instead of just frowning and complaining, the Japanese are now ready to explain patiently how one should traditionally enjoy the onsen (hot spring bath) experience.

It was not always like this, and the welcoming attitude towards more international tourists is certainly positive not only for the economy but also to help create more diversity in society. So is the country ready to open itself up to more immigration? There is no question that Japan’s aging society faces a steep future of depopulation and is in need not only of tourists who can boost the economy but also for people who can fill the gaps in the work force. The impact of a labour shortage is already hitting several industries such as the door to door delivery system of goods to all corners of the country – the takkyubin service. Furthermore, if you go into a convenience store that operates 24 hours a day or a ramen shop open until the early hours, the person at the till is quite frequently a non-Japanese person. So while a lot of Japanese are still in denial that a serious debate on whether or not to allow immigration is necessary, these people who are called ‘foreign labourers’ who come to Japan to be trained to acquire a certain set of skills and only permitted to reside for a limited duration are already quietly entering the labour force. There is a construction boom in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics as well but labour shortage is acute in this area too. So guess what? A new category for ‘training programs’ has been created so that foreign labour can be brought into the construction industry as a stop-gap measure. The list of so called ‘training programs’ is getting longer and longer with still no real overall change in immigration policy.

I doubt that this current situation is sustainable. While there is no sign that the birth rate in Japan is picking up, at least in the short to mid-term future, there is a limit to how much the shortfall in the labour market can be filled by bringing in more Japanese women and senior citizens, especially if we are talking about manual labour. In addition, do we really know whether these foreign labourers will return home once their visas expire? What if they remain in Japan illegally without any social security or safety networks?

It is time that a serious debate begins on these issues. The global trend is against immigration in the UK, Europe and the States. Against this backdrop, there must be quite a lot of Japanese who are convinced that we must stick to not allowing immigration to happen substantially in Japan. However, my point is that it is already happening in a different and disguised form and the consequences of pretending that we do not have an issue here will be dire.

Japan is the focus of our inspiration at the Sainsbury Institute and the country is going through a period of transformation. While arts and culture remain our primary interest, how the society and economics of Japan will or will not change has a profound impact on the way Japanese arts and culture will prosper. In more concrete terms, we recently held a workshop to discuss national changes in demographics where the influential sociologist, Professor Masahiro Yamada, delivered the keynote lecture. Detailed roundup of the workshop can be found in the ‘Crisis Youths Get Creative’ article written for this e-magazine edition by Professor Adrian Favell, who organized the event. Dealing with immigration is increasingly becoming a priority issue in many countries at this time and Japan is no exception.

Mami Mizutori
Executive Director

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