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Japan’s Abe eyes workaround for addressing labor shortage

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeated his assertion that the government will not implement an immigration policy, reflecting a cautious stance over a controversial issue in Japan. 


Conservatives in the country are among the opponents of such a policy. 


But Japan’s population is declining, and with it, the country’s workforce. To counteract this, the Abe administration plans to gradually open the door wider to foreign workers and eventually offer them greater opportunities for permanent residency — without using the contentious term immigration.


“We will do what we can do now,” a senior government official said.


The administration’s basic strategy is to focus on policy efforts rather than a debate over the “i” word. 


Help wanted


The spa at the Busena Terrace resort hotel in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, is in dire need of workers. Five thousand people, including those staying at nearby hotels, use the spa every year. 


The Busena Terrace’s manager said that because the service is fully booked during the peak period from July to September, some customers skip going to the spa. 


The problem? There is a chronic shortage of spa therapists, most of whom are women. 


Hiring foreign therapists seems to be a good solution. 


“If we hire foreign nationals, we won’t miss out on business opportunities even during the busy period,” the manager said. 


In addition, hiring non-Japanese workers would diversify the language capabilities available at the spa. 


“We could attract foreign customers, from which we can expect new business opportunities,” the manager added.  


However, foreign therapists are not covered under the current system for accepting workers into Japan. 


The Nippon Spa Association, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, has proposed bringing in foreign therapists to Okinawa using the government’s national strategic special zone framework designed to promote deregulation.


The Japanese government plans to make it easier for service workers from abroad to work in these zones and take care of foreign tourists visiting Japan.


The goal is to proceed on a long-term basis, accumulating successful models and expanding across the country in the process.


What’s in a word?


A report compiled last May by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Special Mission Committee on Securing of Labor Force gives a hint to what the government’s inner circle has in mind.


It redefines foreign technical interns as workers on a working visa and calls for strengthening the management of the interns.


The report also recommended that the interns’ maximum period for the length of stay remain at five years for the time being, but that renewal be allowed. 


Foreign nationals who have lived in Japan for more than 10 years can apply for permanent residence status. If interns were able to renew their five-year permit, it would pave the way for permanent settlement. This way, the word immigration is not used. 


Former LDP General Council chief Seiko Noda is feeling the pinch of the predicted sharp decline in Japan’s population. Citing an estimate, Noda said the population will nosedive to 49.59 million in 2100.


However, in a reference to the reality of politics, she said, “The government cannot begin a debate on immigration unless it tackles issues regarding women’s career success, employment of people with disabilities and the elderly re-entering the workforce.”


It is easy to lambaste Abe’s remark about not adopting an immigration policy as sophistry given the fact that the number of foreign workers in Japan increased from 910,000 in 2015 to 1.08 million in 2016.


But it is also true that immigration takes on a different meaning depending on the person and the context, according to the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, Japan’s biggest business lobby. 


If using the word “immigration” prevents the government from having policy discussions, the expression “foreign human resources” should be employed instead, for the sake of having a thorough debate on the acceptance of foreign workers in Japan. 

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