Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got the message. The Japanese public and electorate are really not that interested in his constitutional amendment revising Article 9 (which renounces war) with a view to turning Japan into what Abe and his revisionist followers claim would then be a ‘normal’ country. Instead, good old bread-and-butter issues like the rapidly ageing society, labour market reforms and other structural reforms are what concern the Japanese people far more. Abe has long been obsessed with this constitutional amendment, and his Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) has the necessary two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Japanese parliament to initiate the process. However, it is far from clear that the Japanese electorate would approve the amendment in a national referendum. Abe must in recent months have listened to policy advisors with the necessary modicum of good sense, who will in the second half of 2018 have been advising him to go easy on the constitutional amendment and focus instead on Japan’s rapidly ageing society, badly needed immigration, and further economic and structural reforms. To be sure, Abe will still be obsessed with constitutional reform in 2019, but he has – at least for now – given up talking as if his plan to get rid of Article 9 was a matter of life or death for Japan.
Speaking of which, Japan’s demographic trends are dramatic: the population is currently falling by 400,000 a year, and nearly 30% of Japanese are more than 65 years old, compared with Germany where the figure is 21%, the US (15%) or India (less than 6%). Worse still, by 2040 the proportion of 65-year-olds could rise to 40%. Japan’s ageing society has led to labour shortages in numerous sectors, and it is estimated that the workforce will shrink from the current 67.5 million to fewer than 60m by 2030.
In September 2018, then, the Japanese government reacted and did something which initially looked like a visionary policy: it announced a loosening of the country’s restrictive immigration laws to increase the number of foreign workers in Japan, and pledged toestablish a special residential status for lower-skilled foreign workers. In early December it brought in a Bill to allow more foreign blue-collar workers into Japan in an attempt to ease the country’s labour shortage; but the Bill was criticized as too hastily drafted and liable to lead to exploitation of foreign workers. It provides for two new visa categories for blue-collar workers in various sectors. The first would allow workers to stay in Japan for up to five years, but not to bring their families; the second is for more highly skilled foreigners who would be able to bring their families to Japan and might be allowed to apply for permanent residence. This effectively creates a two-class immigration system discriminating against lower-skilled workers; furthermore the Bill does not specify which sectors are covered or what skills foreign workers would need in order to qualify for each visa category. What is clear is thatforeign workers in either category would have to work in particular sectors designated as facing labour shortages. Not allowing foreign workers of the first category to be joined by their families is certainly very debatable from a moral and ethical point of view, and is bound to create controversies in future. Tokyo will undoubtedly be criticized for adopting inhumane immigration laws and treating temporary immigrants as second-class citizens, if it does not allow one category of foreign workers to live with their families in Japan.
While the number of working foreigners in Japan has more than doubled to 1.3m over the last ten years, Tokyo is planning under the new immigration scheme, to allow up to 500,000 low-skilled workers to work in Japan by 2025. While the scheme does address the issue of labour shortage, Abe’s concept of ‘immigration’ does not in any way help to ‘rejuvenate’ the country’s rapidly ageing society and – at least for now – looks like a short-term fix rather than a sustainable policy designed for long-term results. To be sure, Abe made it clear earlier this year that he really does not want foreigners to settle permanently in Japan at all. “We are not adopting a policy for people to settle permanently in the country, or become “immigrants”; the new system we’re setting up is based on the idea that foreigners will work for a limited time in those sectors that are suffering labour shortages, in certain cases without bringing their families.” Arguably this can only be called ‘immigration’ if we accept a definition which includes allowing foreign workers to stay in Japan as ‘second-class citizens’, for a limited period of time and without their families.
On the economic front, Tokyo under Abe has demonstrated in 2018 that it is prepared to show leadership in the face of US President Trump’s misguided protectionism and ‘America-First’ babble. In July 2018 Japan ratified the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a massive inter-regional free trade agreement from which the US under Trump had withdrawn in January 2017. Furthermore, Tokyo has taken a more and more leading role in promoting the rapid adoption of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an Asia-Pacific FTA covering 16 countries including Japan, India, China, Australia and South Korea. Under the banner of Tokyo’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) concept, Japan under Abe has also continued during 2018 to strengthen its economic, trading, security and defence ties withthe US, India and Australia. Although Tokyo naturally does not admit it, the FOIP it promotes is designed to compete with Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and toregain some of the economic and political clout it lost among East and Southeast Asian countries since the BRI was announced in 2013. The main goal of Japan’s FOIP is to promote what is referred to as ‘connectivity’ between Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
All in all, 2018 has been a good political year for the Japanese Prime Minister even if the policies mentioned above for tackling the ageing society and labour shortages still look imperfect and parts of them are discriminatory. Certainly there is more work to be done in 2019.