Can Japan’s regions reap the benefits of migration?

Immigration has long been seen as a controversial topic in the country

Like many parts of Japan, Mie Prefecture is grappling with difficult demographic trends. As young people move to big cities like Tokyo, chasing employment and educational opportunities, the dwindling population that remains gets older, posing a raft of economic and social challenges.

But recent data shows that attracting residents from overseas could be an option for policymakers seeking to offset the population decline — and labour shortages – in regional areas.

Immigration has long been seen as a controversial topic in Japan. So what scope is there for rural areas to benefit?

Changing approach

Shortages in the labour market and the steady march of demographics are forcing a rethink of the benefits that could flow from a more flexible approach to migration.

It may not have been trumpeted loudly, but the number of foreign workers in Japan has steadily grown from 680,000 in 2012 to 1.28million last year. All up, the number of foreign nationals living in Japan reached a record high of 2.6 million in June this year, equivalent to 2% of the total population.

A policy committee advising Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently floated a proposal to bring in up to 500,000 low-skilled labourers by 2025, although they will be prevented from bringing family members with them and are unlikely to be given an easy path to permanent residency.

Turning the tide

In Mie Prefecture, they’re seeing the benefits already. Some 5,907 residents of the area, which is home to 1.8 million people and located in the Kansai region about 300km south-west of the Japanese capital, moved to the Tokyo area last year. At the same time, however, 5,999 foreign residents moved to Mie.

“We are promoting the creation of a multicultural symbiosis society by providing support to solve problems so that foreign residents can live with peace of mind,” a prefectural spokesperson said in an email.

Mie has taken a series of steps to ensure migrants feel welcome.

For example, the prefecture recently announced it would allow the written exam for a driver’s licence to be completed in Chinese, in addition to the existing options of English, Portuguese or Japanese.

Newcomers can use a web portal known as Mie Info that carries local announcements, disaster safety tips and other event details in six languages.

To attract foreign investment, Mie offers subsidies on office rent. It also runs an annual “Mie International Week” to promote cross-cultural exchange and community harmony. Mie has been home to other progress, too: Iga, a city in the prefecture’s west, was one of the first municipalities in Japan to legally recognise same-sex partnerships as equivalent to marriage.

Mie prefecture would “keep a close eye” on the issue of attracting new foreign talent as it considered measures to counter the declining population, the spokesperson said.

But when taking into account other factors, such as deaths and falling birthrates, Mie Prefecture’s population is still shrinking by nearly half a percent each year. In the northern prefecture of Hokkaido, however, the small town of Higashikawa has gained attention for successfully reversing that trend.

A spokesperson for Higashikawa Town Hall confirmed that its population is rising: it is home to 8,356 people – 499 more than in 2013.

The town has made a determined effort to attract people from overseas, including students. The spokesperson explained that the town currently had 291 foreign residents.

One way that Higashikawa has helped to ease the transition for newcomers was to set up a Japanese language college in the grounds of an old elementary school that was no longer needed. Launched in 2015, it was reported to be Japan’s first publicly run Japanese language school for foreign students.

No quick fix

Experts believe relaxing migration rules should be considered for communities that are willing to provide the support services necessary for social cohesion. They warn, though, that it may not be a quick fix.

Akio Kamiko, a professor at Ritsumeikan University’s College of Policy Science, said rural local governments were looking for answers as they faced serious problems with depopulation.

“Probably the degree of seriousness of this problem varies, and rural towns and villages with a population of less than 30,000 have even more prominent difficulties,” he said. “Most of them are in the mountainous areas left out by economic growth and the ageing of the population is the most severe there.”

Kamiko said population declines made it difficult to maintain services provided both by public and private sectors, including transport and shopping, medical and education facilities. As populations aged, meanwhile, communities were able to raise less income through local taxes.

“For the time being local governments can carry on with transfers from the central government, but eventually the point where maintenance of existing basic infrastructures like roads and bridges and provision of welfare services including health insurance and care-taking services for the elderly become impossible,” Kamiko said.

He was cautious, however, about whether immigration is the answer. “If Japan takes in more immigrants they would go into places where labour is most needed,” Kamiko said. “This means that they would be absorbed into urban areas, and I do not think this relaxation of immigrant regulation could be a remedy for depopulation in rural areas.”

Hirohisa Takenoshita, a professor of sociology and inequality at Keio University, said there were labour shortages in the agricultural and fishery sectors in many regional areas.

Takenoshita said the Japanese government had previously rolled out an initiative to encourage internal migration of Japanese citizens from big cities to the regions, but this had not been enough to counter depopulation. He believed that local communities should also explore the option of attracting residents from overseas.

“I think that it depends on the situation in the local community,” said Takenoshita, who has written extensively about how Japanese society has coped with immigration.

“If the local community has a history of accepting people with different cultural backgrounds, they can accept the immigrants from other countries.

“On the other hand, if local communities don’t have any historical legacy of accepting the people with different backgrounds, it might be difficult for them.”

As Mie Prefecture and Higashikawa have shown, attracting migrants to regional areas could be part of the answer to Japan’s population challenge. In due course, other parts of the country may well follow suit. — Daniel Hurst

(Picture credit: Edwin Poon/Flickr)

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