Japan has a labor crisis that refugees could fix—if only its government would let them

“[Job] vacancies exceed 1.48 jobs for every applicant.”
“[Job] vacancies exceed 1.48 jobs for every applicant.”
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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Japan would rather have robots nurse its elderly, and self-driven lorries transport its goods than allow refugees to help ease the nation’s ballooning labor crisis.

Japan is drowning in a surplus of jobs, and while that may sound like the pinnacle of capitalist aspirations, it’s actually a huge economic problem. Put another way: bleak demographics have saddled Japan with its worst labor shortage in decades. The unemployment rate may be joyously low at 2.8%, but the dwindling workforce chokes growth and forces businesses to take desperate moves, like resorting to “digging robots” at construction sites, and letting overtime go unpaid.

With no one left to build their roads, harvest their food, or empty their hospital bedpans, Japan needs workers, and it needs them now. At the end of May, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare announced that vacancies exceed 1.48 jobs for every applicant. The ratio is 2:1 in Tokyo, and 3 or even 4:1 in the pinched nursing and construction sectors. The bite is only set to get worse as the current workforce grays and the birth rate continues to decline.

Yet Japan has willfully ignored the obvious solution already sitting on its doorstep: hiring asylum seekers.

Despite what appears to be an obvious win-win, Japan accepts fewer asylum seekers than almost any other developed country. Last year, just 28 out of 10,901 asylum applicants—or 0.26%—were successful, one more than the previous year. UN chief António Guterres at one point called for an overhaul of Japan’s system, calling it “too rigid, and too restrictive.” If humanitarian grounds alone were not cause enough to move Japan to act, financial imperatives should make the choice an easy one.

Economists from the prime minister’s own office to the International Monetary Fund have cautioned that unless Japan overcomes its reluctance to drastically accelerate large-scale immigration, its fatal combination of the world’s highest longevity and one of the lowest birth rates will spawn a crushing burden for the next generation, and stagnate the world’s third-largest economy. By some estimates, Japan needs an average of 609,000 immigrants per year for nearly 50 years to reestablish its peak workforce of the 1990s bubble years. If, hypothetically, Japan were to suddenly throw its doors open and take in every one of the 170,000 refugees the UN anticipates resettling this year, that gap would not even be close to plugged.

With Japan’s surfeit of jobs, and a ready population of 1.19 million people globally in need of placement, the math isn’t hard, but the politics are a tough sell.

Japan achieved Trump’s nativist, anti-immigration fever dream long ago. Unskilled workers are barred, and a ludicrously literal interpretation of the refugee convention means even asylum seekers who escaped civil war are typically rejected, and only a paltry number of refugees—just 18 last year—are resettled from overseas.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that Japan is not open to permanent immigration—even for Syrians fleeing war.

“I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees we need to have more activities by women, by elderly people, and we must raise [the] birth rate,” he told the UN in 2015.

In a scathing report released in 2016, Oxfam railed against several nations, Japan included, for taking in 0% of their perceived “fair share” of Syrian refugees.

By Oxfam’s count, Japan should have resettled 49,747 Syrian refugees, roughly on par with the number Germany and Canada have already welcomed.

Instead, Japan has pledged to accept over five years a maximum of 150 Syrian students, with their families, under a scholarship program. Another 69 Syrians filed applications for refugee status in Japan between 2011 and 2016. Only seven were accepted, while 52 were allowed to stay temporarily on under humanitarian grounds for a one-year reprieve which does not encompass family members.

Japan says its refugee policies are not heartless, but fiscally responsible. Instead of paying around $10,000 per head for resettlement, Japan was the fourth largest donor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last year, contributing $165 million.

“You can save the lives of 30 or 40 people at a refugee camp overseas by using the same amount of money as accepting one refugee in Japan,” said Saburo Takizawa, a former UNHCR representative in Japan.

But refugee advocates counter that Japan’s policies are “completely out of touch with reality.” By showering money on refugee camps from Kampala to Baghdad, Japan may keep desperate families off its shores, but it also defers those same families’ ability to restart their lives, and prevents them from economically contributing to the nation where they resettle.

“Accepting more refugees would not affect the labor participation of women and older people, but rather help society become more inclusive and tolerant to different groups,” Taisuke Komatsu, a Japanese human rights advocate, wrote in an op-ed.

Foreigners only account for 1.74% of the total population of Japan. Public reluctance to changing that composition is rife.

Prime minister Abe’s adviser Masahiko Shibayama said that Japan has “an allergy toward the word ‘immigration,’” and, yes, even in a place with a job glut, there are fears that immigrants will ‘steal’ jobs. “People are worried about public security. They worry that foreign workers would eat up Japanese jobs,” he said.

But so pressing is the need for blue-color workers in Japan that Abe has somewhat relented to business leaders’ demands for foreign manpower by boosting the quota of a “trainee” scheme to 200,000. But the temporary program, which was slammed by the US as perpetuating forced labor, only allots three-year visas, after which the workers must return home.

Meanwhile, the 10,000 or so asylum seekers already in the country cannot legally rent apartments, open bank accounts, or sign up for mobile phone contracts. They can only legally work if they entered the country on a valid visa—an impossibility for those who fled their homes without time for gathering paperwork. Out of necessity, many seek work in the black market which business leaders are already illicitly tapping into, hiring those seeking refugee status for a cheap and much-needed source of labor. The arrangement makes so much financial sense that its common for businesses to risk the potential $30,000 fine and jail sentence for employing undocumented foreign workers.

On the outskirts of Tokyo, a neighborhood locally dubbed “Warabistan” has cropped up to accommodate the Kurdish asylum seekers who staff construction sites and convenience stores. Government-funded road projects and Subaru cars plants have both benefitted from asylum seekers’ work. In 2015, asylum seekers were even found removing radioactive contamination at Fukushima—under the false pretense that they would be given visas in return.

How Japan handles its aging society and strained labor market is being closely watched by other countries that will soon face the same challenges. So far, Japan has been exemplary only at getting old and increasingly cantankerous about immigration.

Japanese business leaders have cautioned that if the country wants to remain competitive, redrafting its immigration policies is inevitable. Politicians are starting to catch on to the idea as well. Yoshio Kimura, a member of parliament with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, told Reuters last year that fiscal policies to spur growth have maxed out.

“Breaking a 50-year taboo, we will tackle the debate on accepting foreigners as workers,” he said. Whether that will extend to a more generous acceptance of refugees, however, remains to be seen.