An Immigration Bill That Puts Immigrant Workers Last

Shinzō Abe is pushing to open up Japan’s restrictive immigration system. But his reforms would serve the interests of business, not immigrant workers.

Across the industrialized world, far-right parties have come to power through demonizing immigrants and promising to tighten borders. Japan’s right-wing government is just as nationalistic and xenophobic as the rest. But it’s moving in the opposite direction: allowing more immigrant workers.

Last Tuesday, the lower house passed Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s bill to revise Japan’s strict immigration laws and permit more blue-collar workers from overseas to live in the country. The draft legislation would extend work visas to as many as 340,000 immigrant workers over the next five years.

The overhaul could mark a significant shift in a country that has historically been resistant to accepting immigrants. Currently, Japan has 1.3 million foreign workers residing in its borders — just 1 percent of the total population.

But the move would not so much be a victory for immigrant workers as for the companies that have lobbied for it. Businesses are facing severe labor shortages, especially in the construction and agricultural sectors, due to the country’s rapidly aging population. The legislation is Abe’s attempt to help them out. During a parliamentary session last week, he emphasized that immigrant workers would only be accepted “where they are truly needed” to “keep Japan’s economy and infrastructure sustainable.”

In keeping with this goal, the design of the two new types of visas — both limited to workers with “specialized skills” — shows little concern for the actual lives of immigrants. The first type allows workers to stay for up to five years, but prohibits them from bringing any family members. The second type allows immigrants to bring family members and includes a path to permanent residency, but is limited to those with “more advanced skills.”

In fact, Abe has maintained that the reforms should not be seen as “immigration policy” per se. Responding to criticism from opposition leaders — who have called him out for his refusal to use the term “immigrant” — Abe has claimed that the reforms are solely intended to “combat” labor shortages by “accepting foreign workers for a limited time.”

By Lisa Torio for JACOBIN
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