When I lived in the Japanese countryside 10 years ago, I rarely came across other non-Japanese residents. Even in Tokyo, as a tall, white American, I’d sometimes get surprised glances from local residents.
But when I visited last month, I was struck by how much had changed. Hotels, shopping centres and cafés seemed to have at least one immigrant working there. Some of the young people staffing reception desks and video game arcades wore badges with non-Japanese names.
At one pub-restaurant in Kanazawa, a mid-sized city north of Tokyo, I saw a young Caucasian assistant behind the counter assisting the sushi chef. At another restaurant, we were served by a non-Japanese waiter from an Asian nation – and ended up communicating in English.
In short? Japan is internationalising – and this process is on the cusp of rapid acceleration.
The driving force is demographic change: Japan’s population is ageing rapidly and shrinking. Add in other factors including never-before-seen levels of foreign tourism, plus massive preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and the result is a nation that desperately needs more workers to fill jobs.
Japan has been aware of a looming demographic crunch for decades, but because successive governments have been reluctant to take major steps, the problem has become more urgent.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to bring in more foreign, low-wage workers. But his proposal to accept hundreds of thousands of people to fill blue-collar jobs by 2025 is highly controversial in a nation that has traditionally shunned immigration.
On Saturday, Japan’s parliament accepted that proposal in a contentious and unprecedented move to let in more immigrant workers than ever before – 300,000 throughout the next five years, starting in April. The new bill comes at a time of historic change in Japan. And how everything shakes out could shape the country for generations.
Spike in seniors, spike in foreigners
Bhupal Shrestha is a university lecturer living in Tokyo’s Suginami ward, a residential area known for its narrow alleys lined with second-hand clothing and antique shops. He’s lived in Japan for 15 years, but the road to a “permanent resident” visa hasn’t always been a smooth one.
He says he’s experienced “discrimination on basic things, such as searching for rooms for residences or businesses, opening bank accounts, applying for credit cards”. He also says it’s hard for immigrants themselves to have much say in the government policy that affects them.
There are 1.28 million foreign workers living in Japan – a record number
“Japanese society is opening up to immigrants, but they are still conservative in some places,” he says. “I think it is due to the lack of chances [they have] for cultural exchange with immigrants.”
Originally from Nepal, Shrestha is one of the 1.28 million foreign workers living in Japan. It’s a record number, up from 480,000 in 2008. Yet the figure constitutes just 1% of Japan’s population, compared to 5% in the UK or 17% in the US. Almost 30% of Japan’s foreign workers come from China, with significant populations from Vietnam, the Philippines and Brazil.
The low figure is because immigration has traditionally been unpopular in Japan. An island nation, it was once fiercely isolationist. Up until the mid-1800s, those entering or leaving the country could be punished by death. Now, however, modern Japan views itself as homogenous, with a strong cultural identity.
Historically, domestic anxieties toward immigration stem from perceived job losses, cultural disruption and fears of spiking crime rates in what is a famously low-crime nation.
But the big problem is this: the number of native Japanese is going down.
The population contracted by nearly a million people between 2010 and 2015 alone. Last year, it fell by another 227,000. In parallel, the number of residents over 65 hit a record 27% – a number that will rise to 40% in 2050.
In May, the job availability ratio hit the highest it’s been in 44 years: 160 jobs for every 100 workers. That means there are now lots of available jobs that older Japanese can’t do and that younger Japanese don’t want to do.
The population contracted by nearly a million people between 2010 and 2015 alone
“Very dire” is how Shihoko Goto, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a US think-tank, describes the situation. But she says in the past immigration “has really not been seen as part of a broader solution to some of the issues Japan is facing”.
While some businesses and politicians back Abe’s plans, others are lining up to question how it could change Japanese society.
Desperately seeking workers
“Not many Japanese have actual experience of working and living together with foreigners,” says Masahito Nakai, an immigration lawyer in Tokyo. But he says people are starting to understand that something must be done. “They are realising the country cannot stand without their help.”
Not many Japanese have actual experience of working and living together with foreigners. [But] they are realising the country cannot stand without their help - Masahito Nakai
The most urgent need is in sectors like construction, agriculture and ship-building, in all parts of the country. The hospitality and retail industries also increasingly require English and other language skills as tourism continues to boom.
Nursing and homecare workers are also urgently needed to care for the growing cohort of retirees. According to a November report more than 345,000 foreign workers are expected to come to Japan to fill roles across all these sectors in the next five years, if Abe’s proposals go through.
To date, Japan has got around the issue of importing foreign workers by using a temporary “technical intern training programme”. This allows young labourers or students to work in low-wage roles for three to five years before going home.
But the programme has been criticised for exploiting workers in areas ranging from meagre pay to bad working conditions. Last year, it emerged that a 24-year-old Vietnamese man on the programme ended up handling radioactive nuclear waste as part of the Fukushima clean-up. It’s been criticised in the press for years, with some outlets dubbing it “servitude in disguise”.
Now, Abe wants to allow low-skilled workers to stay for five years, and introduce a renewable visa for skilled workers, who would be allowed to bring their families. He wants the new visa schemes to launch in April.
Most are helping economic growth, taking jobs the Japanese are not willing to take - Takatoshi Ito
Abe resists calling these workers “immigrants” though, and critics of his plan fear it could provide an easier path to permanent residency. There’s also concern that foreign workers would crowd cities and not live in rural areas where they are needed the most. Rights advocates, meanwhile, fear that Japan still has not learned how to adequately protect foreign workers from exploitation.
Takatoshi Ito, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, says he believes that Japanese society “is waking up to globalisation”. “So far, most [foreign workers] are helping economic growth, taking jobs the Japanese are not willing to take.”
But Nakai, the immigration lawyer, says securing a visa is just the beginning and that assimilating into Japanese culture can be difficult. He points to gaps in language and cultural knowledge as key challenges migrant workers face.
“If taxpayers agree, the government at least should provide free or cheap Japanese language courses over the archipelago as a first step,” Nakai says. Others think there isn’t much outreach in general.
“I think there are very few exchange events organised. There isn’t even communication between residents of the same apartment [block],” says Bhupal Shrestha. “When there is no understanding between neighbours, a multicultural society can’t be made.”
Chikako Usui, a sociologist at the University of Missouri in St Louis, says a variety of factors, from Japan’s isolationist history to its self-perceived homogeneity, give immigrants a rough go.
She highlights the litany of unspoken rules and subtle social cues that frame Japanese society that tire even native Japanese and contribute to their unease towards outsiders. The thinking is, she says, how could foreigners possibly understand everything from proper recycling etiquette to knowing to keep quiet on public transport or anticipating what strangers are thinking?
I think [Japanese] have more opportunities to be with people who are not like them in a way that was not conceivable even 10 years ago - Shihoko Goto
Usui points to this Japanese concept of “kuuki wo yomu”, or “reading the air”, that makes Japan go round and involves near telepathic understanding of the unspoken social minutiae of daily life: “Japanese people really don’t think this is possible for foreigners. In fact, [even] I could not [always] do it in Japan.”
Goto of the Woodrow Wilson Center says there is a stringent code for what it means to be Japanese. “It’s not simply about citizenship: it’s about race, it’s about language, it’s about body language. All of these subtle things that a non-Japanese would not get.
“But there is, increasingly, a more open perspective,” she adds. “I think [Japanese] have more opportunities to be with people who are not like them in a way that was not conceivable even 10 years ago.”
As society ages and as the Olympics approach, the pressure is intensifying on Japan to figure out how to bring in desperately needed labour from overseas.
Those moving to Japan need to know what they’re getting into, says Shrestha. He enjoys living in Japan, but says it is a place where “hard work is worshipped and rules are followed”. “It is better to come with some knowledge of Japanese culture and rules of daily life,” he says.
Meanwhile, the government will likely spend much of 2019 wrestling with an acceptable foreign worker solution. Until it can do that, the labour problem isn’t going anywhere.
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital’s features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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