Due to an ageing population, low birth rate, and shrinking workforce, Japanese policy makers have proposed large increases in immigration – a dramatic about-turn from a traditional “no-immigration principle.” The Japan Forum on International Relations writes in a 2010 policy paper that Japan “essentially has no other choice but to accept foreign migrants,” arguing that the country’s economic strength and welfare state depend on it.

Immigration reform, in other words, is badly needed, but very little progress has been made. Professor Ito Peng’s 2016 articles: “Testing the Limits of Welfare State Changes: The Slow-moving Immigration Policy Reform in Japan” and “Japan and its Immigration Policies are Getting Old” argue that policy implementation is hampered by low levels of support for immigration among the general public.

Jeremy Davison, a Master’s student at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, is working with Professor Peng on her GMC sub-project Theoretical and Empirical Bases for Reconceptualizing Care, Work, and Migration.  Davison’s interviews with 30 Japanese politicians, civil servants and leaders involved in decision-making about immigrants, in the summer of 2015, reveal fears about the erosion of Japanese identity, and sometimes blunt rejection of a future multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Japanese society.

But need can open doors. Historically, in North American and European countries, the need for foreign workers to meet labour shortages has led, over time, to broader and more inclusive understandings and laws regarding national belonging. In the past, labour migrations have been mostly male, and involved industrial work – in building, mining and transportation. Japan – unlike other industrialized countries – did not receive a large inflow of international migrants in the post WW2 period.  Still, by 2002, Japan had over 700,000 foreign workers, about one percent of the Japanese workforce. Of these, around 100,000 are professionals and other highly skilled workers, while the rest perform low-skilled and semi-skilled labour. In this latter group, those of non-Japanese descent tend to work in insecure, poorly-paid and marginal sectors of employment, largely out of sight and mind.

Japan now has a critical need for nurses and other kinds of careworkers to look after its growing elderly population, and has been forced to look outside its borders for them.

In the period 2007-2011, Indonesia and the Philippines sent approximately 1400 mostly female migrant caregivers to Japan under bilateral economic agreements, falling far short of the target of admitting 2000 workers per year. The program is being expanded to include workers from Vietnam, and possibly from India. Caregivers (doing nursing and homecare) work as trainees for three to four years. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare acknowledged in 2015 that most migrants seeking to become certified care workers were failing the licensing exam at the completion of their training period. The difficulties stem largely from the fact that the highly technical written exam is entirely in Japanese. Critics say the success rate of trainees has been hampered by insufficient training and social supports.

The future of the program is unclear, but the experiment is having an effect not only on policy discussions, but also on public opinion. While Davison is still analysing his interviews, he has recorded expressions of wariness and concern about the presence of migrant workers. But there is some evidence of increasing openness as well.

Davison’s interest in researching Japan was piqued after an exchange year during his undergraduate degree.  He wanted to deepen his language ability and understanding of Japanese culture. He spent two years working as a civil servant in Yamanshi city’s prefectural government office, and he says while his learning grew, so did his questions.

“There’s a community ethos of what it means to be Japanese, and it was just so different than the Canadian pluralistic understanding of identity. It was such an interesting theme to me.  What does it mean to belong to a homogeneous society? What does it mean to belong to a pluralist society?”

Davison says a central theme of his research will be exploring the relationship of citizenship to immigration. He says interview subjects discussed immigration both in terms of migrant labour and the people who would build permanent lives in Japan.

Davison’s Masters is in collaboration with the Asia-Pacific Studies Program at the University of Toronto, and his work is a part of Professor Ito Peng’s research, which is supported by the SSHRC funded Partnership Project on Gender, Migration and the Work of Care.