Europe’s migration lessons for Japan

Japan's workforce is ageing fast and lawmakers are working to reform the country's immigration laws – what lessons can Europe teach Japan?

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Japan is in the process of changing its famously restrictive immigration laws. During the last few weeks, Japanese lawmakers have held an extraordinary session of the Diet to discuss the topic. They aim to bring in foreign workers to address the most severe national labour shortage in four decades while causing minimal disruption to society. This may prove difficult: in 2017, legal foreign residents comprised only 1.95 percent of the country’s population.

What lessons can Europe – a continent with a long history of immigration – teach Japan? In light of the much-publicised migration crisis in Europe, many Japanese see the European experience as a cautionary tale rather than a model to emulate. Indeed, for those who oppose immigration, the rise in social unrest and populism in Europe that followed the migration crisis vindicates their stance. However, they have adopted a reductive view of a complex phenomenon. If Japan genuinely wants to address its migration challenges, as well as the challenges of a shrinking population, it needs to look beyond the migration crisis.

Japan’s pressing need for migrants

A glance at Japan’s demographic trends underlines the urgency of the migration issue. With approximately 25 percent of its population over the age of 65, the country is experiencing one of the fastest rates of ageing in the world. And with birth rates below replacement levels, the longest life expectancy in the world, and a baby-boom generation that is reaching retirement age, Japan is also facing challenges to its pension and healthcare systems. In the Japanese construction sector, for example, one-third of workers are older than 55 and only 11 percent are younger than 29. According to a report the Migration Policy Institute published last year, “immigrants would need to make up at least 10 percent of the overall population” to address these challenges effectively.

Japan needs to resist the temptation to view Europe as merely an example of the negative socio-political consequences of immigration

Until recently, Japan preferred to appeal to highly skilled immigrants and to use artificial intelligence to mitigate its labour shortage. Launched in 2012, the country’s Highly Skilled Foreign Professionals visa initiative is partly modelled on the Australian and Canadian points systems. Last year, Japan adopted measures to offer permanent residency to some highly skilled workers in as little as one year. Despite these efforts, the 2017 edition of the IMD World Talent Ranking listed Japan as the least attractive of 11 Asian nations as a destination for highly skilled workers. This suggests that there is a need for broader reforms.

Lessons from Europe

In this context, careful analysis of the European experience provides some helpful lessons. The first – and far from surprising – lesson is that boosting immigration helps offset the challenges of ageing and shrinking populations. The European Union projects that European countries’ acceptance of migrants should help them maintain their current population size throughout this century. Many Western European states have fertility rates below replacement levels among native-born citizens but, unlike Japan, they have used immigration to make up the difference. In contrast, the populations of countries in central and eastern Europe – which generally experience high rates of emigration and very low rates of immigration – have shrunk in recent years.

The second lesson is that immigration may well have improved Europe’s competitiveness and economic growth. The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Report consistently places European countries with high rates of immigration – including Switzerland, which has a foreign-born population of almost 25 percent – near the top of its rankings and, in some cases, above Japan. Despite the disruption of the financial and migration crises, the Eurozone has experienced positive (if modest) economic growth since 2015. The most economically successful European countries have actively courted foreign workers, offering both competitive salaries and optimal living conditions, including housing, language classes, and other benefits.

A third lesson is that the gains discussed above will only be sustainable if the government implements effective integration policies in collaboration with civil society. Here, countries in Western Europe are by no means perfect but, in the Center for Global Development’s 2016 ranking of states’ immigration policies, they performed better than Japan. Integration is a multifaceted process that requires effort from both sides: immigrants working to integrate into the host society, and that society reaching out to accept them. According to Harvard University’s recent study of perceptions of immigration in Western Europe and the United States, most people exaggerate the size and impact of the immigrant population in their country. Those who know immigrants are a notable exception.

Boosting immigration helps offset the challenges of ageing and shrinking population

These findings suggest that governments need to actively encourage open public dialogue on immigration and interactions with immigrants in host societies. The native population’s investment in the process should accompany policies that help immigrants find jobs, enter the housing market, and learn the local language. Another integral part of a successful integration policy is a healthy system of naturalisation. Here, Japan remains one of the few countries to implement a restrictive jus sanguinis policy (one based on parents’ nationality). Germany revised its jus sanguinis law in 2000 to make it easier for foreign residents to acquire citizenship. As a consequence, while Japan naturalises approximately 1,000 people every year, Germany naturalised 112,211 in 2017.

A new Japan?

Japan’s recent measures to boost labour immigration suggest that it is undertaking a series of ad hoc measures rather than implementing a coherent strategy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s February 2018 statement that his government “has no intention of adopting a so-called immigration policy” supports this view. While it is right to proceed cautiously, Japan would benefit from an open public dialogue on immigration and national identity given many Japanese citizens’ perception of the country as culturally and ethnically homogeneous.

Japan needs to resist the temptation to view Europe as merely an example of the negative socio-political consequences of immigration. By learning from the European experience, the country can enjoy the positive aspects of immigration. Moreover, Europe and Japan could both benefit from direct consultations with each other on the issue, using the forums for cooperation they created under their recent Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA).

Irina Angelescu is an independent consultant based in Washington, DC. Her work focuses on transatlantic affairs, migration policies, and EU-Japan relations. The views expressed in this piece are her own.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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