Japan eyes more foreign workers, stealthily challenging immigration taboo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Desperately seeking an antidote to a rapidly aging population, Japanese policymakers are exploring ways to bring in more foreign workers without calling it an “immigration policy”.

Immigration is a touchy subject in a land where conservatives prize cultural homogeneity and politicians fear losing votes from workers worried about losing jobs.

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe

But a tight labour market and ever-shrinking work force are making Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy team and lawmakers consider the politically controversial option.

Signalling the shift, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) panel is likely to propose this week expanding the types of jobs open to foreign workers, who are expected to top 1 million this year.

“Domestically, there is a big allergy. As a politician, one must be aware of that,” Takeshi Noda, an adviser to the LDP panel, told Reuters in an interview.

Unlike the United States, where Donald Trump has made immigration an election issue, Japan has little history of immigration. But, that makes ethnic and cultural diversity seem more of a threat in Japan than it may seem elsewhere.

And while Japan is not caught up in the mass migration crisis afflicting Europe, the controversies in other regions do colour the way Japanese think about immigration.

LDP lawmakers floated immigration proposals almost a decade ago, but those came to naught. But, since then, labour shortages have worsened and demographic forecasts have become direr.

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