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Japan opens its doors wider to foreign workers, refugees

Real challenge lies in integration of vastly different worldviews, lifestyles into a society that has been relatively insular
A poster near the passport control counter of the immigration office at Narita International Airport in Narita, Japan.

A poster near the passport control counter of the immigration office at Narita International Airport in Narita, Japan. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 01, 2024 12:02 PM GMT
Updated: April 01, 2024 12:14 PM GMT

In 2023, Japan set a new precedent by granting refugee status to 303 individuals. The total number of refugees accepted increased by 101 compared to the previous year, which was a 50 percent increase in only one year.

Afghans constituted the majority with 237 individuals, many of whom were associated with the Japan International Cooperation Agency and sought refuge following the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan.

Among the other nationalities granted refuge were 27 individuals from Myanmar, as the country continues to face prolonged unrest due to military rule, and six Ethiopians.

Applications for refugee status rose to 13,823, the second-highest tally ever recorded, trailing only the peak year of 2017 when 19,629 people applied for asylum.

Sri Lankans were the predominant group among the applicants, numbering 3,778, with significant numbers also arriving from Turkey and Pakistan.

Concurrently, the number of foreign residents in Japan swelled to 3,410,992, marking a 10.9 percent increase from the previous year and setting a record for the second consecutive year, as reported by the Immigration Services Agency.

"The cultural homogeneity that has long been a staple of Japanese identity is at risk of being disrupted"

At first glance, these figures might seem to cheer those heralding a new era of inclusivity and openness in Japan, a country traditionally known for its stringent immigration policies.

However, a closer examination reveals that this apparent shift might not be as transformative as it appears, and raises several critical questions about Japan's future societal, economic, and political landscapes.

While the increase in foreign residents and refugees in Japan suggests a move towards a more globalized and multicultural society, it also brings to light significant societal challenges.

For one thing, Japan's integration mechanisms for newcomers are underdeveloped, leaving much to be desired in terms of language support and social services.

The sudden increase in the foreign population may exacerbate these issues, potentially leading to social friction rather than harmony and inclusion as we are already seeing happening in prefectures with a high density of foreign workers, Gunma for example.

Furthermore, the cultural homogeneity that has long been a staple of Japanese identity is at risk of being disrupted without a clear plan for fostering mutual understanding.

The cultural homogeneity of Japan, characterized by shared traditions, values, and social norms, has been a defining feature of the nation's identity for centuries. This uniformity has fostered a strong sense of community and belonging among its people, contributing to the country's social cohesion and stability.

"The influx of foreign workers and refugees is often touted as a solution to Japan's demographic crisis"

However, as Japan opens its doors wider to foreign residents and refugees, this long-standing homogeneity is poised at a crossroads.

The challenge lies not just in the numeric increase of foreigners but in the integration of vastly different worldviews and lifestyles into a society that has, until recently, been relatively insular.

Japan's education system, public services, and community programs are largely designed with a homogeneous population in mind. As such, these institutions may struggle to accommodate the needs of a more diverse populace, leading to potential misunderstandings and conflicts that could strain the social fabric.

The path forward for Japan is complex, requiring thoughtful consideration of how to integrate new residents without losing the essence of its cultural identity. It is precisely due to the charm of this cultural identity that more than 30 million tourists flock to this nation annually, seeking to immerse themselves in the authentic Japan — an experience distinct from the globalized amalgamation of cultures and cuisines readily available back home.

The tourists come in pursuit of unique cultural insights and culinary traditions that are deeply rooted in Japanese history and way of life.

Also, economically, the influx of foreign workers and refugees is often touted as a solution to Japan's demographic crisis, characterized by an aging population and shrinking workforce. However, this perspective oversimplifies the complexities of integrating foreign labor into Japan's unique economic structure.

There is a risk that without proper employment policies, which is likely if we look at the European model, foreign workers may just end up in low-paying, unstable jobs, which could lead to exploitation on the one hand and fail to provide the economic boost Japan needs. As a result, this situation will ultimately lead to the creation of economically marginalized social groups, making them vulnerable to a range of illegitimate activities.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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