Japan has been recognized as a country with very restrictive immigration policies. The country, nevertheless, continues to face a slowing supply of domestic labor. In hopes of addressing this issue, the state enacted a migration program for individuals with Japanese heritage to return and a short-term worker allowance policy. Since the former was less successful, the latter had to be developed further. Political scientist Yunchen Tian describes a rising of a Japanese ‘developmental migration state’ in the 21st Century. In this new wave of immigration politics in Japan, the restrictive East Asian islands reconfigure their policies for economic and developmental gain.
The two main policies that have shown to lax Japan’s immigration doors are Teijūsha (定住者) and Ginō Jisshū Seido (技能実習制度). The first allows individuals whose family once emigrated outside of Japan after war times and whose heritage is Japanese to be repatriated. This visa is a endlessly renewable resident permit, yet does not serve as a path towards citizenship. Similarly, the second policy, the 1993 Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) is also not intended for citizenship purposes yet both cover pressing needs in the Japanese labor force.
POLICY REVIEW OF NEW LABOR IMMIGRATION
Japan’s issue at hand stems from a shortage in their labor force; especially in low barrier of entry positions partly due to their aging population. Relatedly, a second issue affects Japan, that of closed-off immigration policy as a general outlook of outsiders accessing Japan. This seems especially pronounced when considering allowing access into their borders for labor migration specifically.
From this dilemma, one can notice two patterned problems the Japanese government may fear of what their public perception would be in the eyes of their population. In new attempts to create some options for labor migrants to enter Japan, the government wants to cover their bases. Firstly, not giving the impression that these new policies will grant citizenship, and secondly, not give employment to outsiders—or Gaijin (外人)—that would otherwise be jobs for born citizens.
The Japanese government has, as previously described, two newer policies to address their labor shortage. Teijūsha (定住者) are preferential visas for individuals in the post-war Japanese diaspora who can prove a family link to Japan up to three generations. Proven Japanese descendants or Nikkeijin repatriate from places such as Brazil. These visas allow immigration into Japan for up to 5 years as visa term but are also endlessly renewable. How does the government protect its public image from intranational critics? It does not provide citizenship and it is not a labor program per se. Additionally, the government can proudly claim that these are long-lost expatriated Japanese that left during war times and now happily (and voluntarily) chose to be repatriated to their homeland. This can be claimed since Japanese kinship is a requirement that must be proven before obtaining a Teijūsha repatriation visa. These individuals are therefore co-ethnics who do not pose a public perception issue for ‘possibly’ taking jobs that should be for Japanese citizens.
Ginō Jisshū Seido (技能実習制度) is described as Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) and serves as a short-term guest worker program. The name is purposely not a worker program since it sees its holders as trainees and not workers. This policy allows foreign nationals to enter the country under the condition of continued employment at the same trainee company that requested this visa. It therefore does not allow for these migrant workers to apply for other jobs in the country or discontinue their affiliation to that firm, since their authorized stay in Japan is contingent upon this requirement. Additionally, it allows only a maximum of a 3 year stay and are subject to annual review. Although described as a traineeship, these are only targeting ‘unskilled’ workers that enter the country to do jobs contributing to Japan under the premise that it is them who benefit for being trained under Japanese skills and practices. This policy does not grant residency or citizenship, and are not categorized as work, even though they are being recruited to work as ‘unskilled’ workers.
Perhaps, these two policies are objectively advances in Japan’s closed-door immigration policies. The policies save face from public scrutiny inside of Japan since they have been designed to refute any allegations or concerns of granting citizenship or jobs to foreign nationals. They also limit the country of origin of these workers. Strict measures limit the number of participating nations of TITPs being in the pan-Asian geography exclusively. Both policies result in attempts at increasing economic labor migration. Nevertheless, these highly strategized policies do not come without an array of not so publicly presentable practices.
Teijūsha, though on first glance, could be more desirable or acceptable to Japanese customary immigration beliefs has decreased in popularity. Ginō Jisshū Seido has been reported to result in the mistreatment of foreign ‘trainees’ through exploitative practices while producing clothes for highly regarded brands (link). Such accusations of mistreatment have been recorded by the Japanese Ministry of Justice of foreign workers with TITPs visas who even faced wage theft on top of their excessive work routines (link).
In practice, different newcomers face low desirability and social exclusion from the Japanese society (Tian 2019; Tsuda 2003; Sharpe 2011). And in terms of government attitudes of these foreigners, there is absolutely no anti-discriminatory laws to protect, much less acknowledge, structural forms of exclusion. This combination may not necessarily dictate the presence of active exclusion, yet certainly a prevention of inclusion. This is consistent with the predominant finding of the Japanese state intentional negligence policy of inaction (Tian 2019; Vogt 2013).
Concerns over labor and human rights plague these policies, especially TITPs temporary Asian workers. Amidst a number of infraction allegations, the guest worker program has shown not to honor either worker rights nor basic human rights within these for-profit labor internships. These have occurred at ‘unskilled’ menial jobs such as in manufacturing of textiles and electronics working endless hours under strained conditions. Continued attention from such infractions can weaken Japan’s international appearance with the possibility of reverbing negatively within the country as well.
In conclusion, the regulation of migration through concerns of national security of access has not yet resulted in the economic goals set forth by these labor migration programs. Public perception of more opened borders continues to handicap the country’s ability to address economic development. Further research and policy restructuring will have to consider the development of migration through comprehensive legislation of newcomers ranging from labor and human rights to clear paths of integration. In a space where both entities — incoming foreigners and the Japanese economy — can benefit, this will lead to more economic and co-existing goals being met.
Sharpe, Michael Orlando. 2011. “What Does Blood Membership Mean in Political Terms?: The Political Incorporation of Latin American Nikkeijin (Japanese Descendants (LAN) in Japan 1990–2004.” Japanese Journal of Political Science 12 (01): 113–142. doi:10.1017/S1468109910000253.
Tsuda, Takeyuki. 2003. Strangers in the Ethnic Homeland: Japanese Brazilian Return Migration in Transnational Perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.
Vogt, Gabriele. 2013. “When the Leading Goose Gets Lost: Japan’s Demographic Change and the Non-reform of Its Migration Policy.” ASIAN STUDIES: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia 49(2): 14–44.
Tian, Yunchen. 2019. “Workers by any other name: comparing co-ethnics and ‘interns’ as labour migrants to Japan.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45 (9): 1496–1514. doi:10.1080/1369183X.2018.1466696