Japan Will Allow More Immigration, Official Says (Update1)

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By Jason Clenfield

May 23 (Bloomberg) — Japan will open its borders to more foreign workers to keep the economy growing as its population ages, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Mitoji Yabunaka said.

“We’re ready to make Japan as open as possible,” Yabunaka said in a May 21 interview in Tokyo. “Clearly there’s the need for more immigration. We’re faced with all sorts of demographic questions.”

Japan’s population began declining in 2005 and the government said earlier this year that it may fall by as much as a quarter by 2050. Japan has never had to rely on mass immigration, unlike countries such as the U.S. and Australia that were founded by migrants.

“Japan has no official immigration policy like those of the U.S. or Australia,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute. “The policy has been to keep people out if they intend to stay permanently.”

Foreigners accounted for 1.6 percent of Japan’s 128 million population last year. Almost half of the 2 million people that the government classifies as foreigners are people of Chinese, Korean and Brazilian descent who were born in Japan, said Sakanaka, who is a former head of the Tokyo immigration bureau.

The Foreign Ministry’s Yabunaka said the government’s decision last September to allow 1,000 Filipino nurses to work in Japan is an example of a more open immigration policy.

“It’s a small beginning, but it is a beginning,” he said.

Japanese Test

The proposed partnership, still subject to approval by the Philippines congress, requires workers to take six months of lessons in Japanese and nursing, followed by a supervised internship culminating in an examination in Japanese that critics say is so onerous as to make the program impossible.

“This won’t address the nursing shortage,” said Sakanaka. “Nobody will be able to pass the tests and they’ll all be sent home.”

Japan had six nurses for every 1,000 people in 2004, the most recent year for which government data are available, compared with 8.3 in the U.S. About a fifth of Japan’s population is over 65 years old and the percentage is climbing, increasing the demand for health-care services.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s key economic panel last week proposed that the number of foreign students in the country be more than doubled as a way to bring in skilled labor from abroad.

“I don’t know if it’s what you’d call cultural resistance, but since this is new, there are lots of things that have to be pondered and discussed,” Yabunaka said, when asked why Japan has been so slow to open its borders. “Naturally people are concerned about safety.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Clenfield in Tokyo at jclenfield@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: May 22, 2007 22:25 EDT

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