Japan starting to pay price for halfhearted courtship of foreign workers
TOKYO — Immigration is often discussed as a potential solution for shoring up Japan’s aging and shrinking workforce. Yet many say Tokyo is not doing enough to compete with other governments that offer international workers greener pastures.
The demographic math does not look good.
The Cabinet Office in February estimated that in order to stabilize Japan’s population at around 110 million, the nation will need to accept 200,000 immigrants annually as well as raise its birthrate to 2.07. The number of foreign workers stood at 718,000 in 2013, up only 35,000 from the previous year.
International talent is not exactly flocking to Japan; some workers are also leaving the country. Asokaen, a nursing home for seniors who need special care in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, has seen this firsthand.
Recently, a female Filipino employee in her 30s informed the facility that she had decided to go and work in the U.K. She had been studying to obtain a nursing care license in Japan but the language barrier dissuaded her from continuing. “Japan is losing the global competition to attract skilled workers,” lamented Yukichika Kawahara, who manages the nursing home.
Japan accepts such workers under an economic partnership agreement with the Philippines. Caregivers can come and gain experience while studying for the exam, which they must pass if they want to stay for the long term. In fiscal 2013, through this past March, only 87 Filipino caregivers signed up, less than half the figure for fiscal 2009, when the agreement took effect.
The caregivers make no secret of the reason they prefer to find jobs in places like the U.S., Britain and Canada. Their Facebook pages are awash with comments about the difficulty of passing Japan’s exam.
Despite its growing need for international talent, Japan’s door is barely open. Yes, some foreign individuals can work in the country while studying, but formal working visas are basically reserved for specialists and individuals of Japanese ancestry.
South Korea, in contrast, overhauled its policy regarding foreign workers about a decade ago. Seoul introduced a system that allows companies to hire people of other nationalities when they cannot find South Koreans to fill vacant positions. The system is designed to treat foreigners as an important part of the workforce and allows them to stay for up to nearly 10 years.