For most of the 17 years that have passed since I immigrated to these shores, I have managed or owned recruitment firms, so the subject of talent, the labour force, and the availability and diversity thereof, has always been dear to my heart.
I have plied my trade in this field throughout several economic cycles, and with the exception of the freak market conditions immediately after 9/11 and again, in 2008 following the Lehman shock, one constant remains: the shortage of really talented and motivated people to satisfy market demand.
Throughout my time in Japan, successive governments have blamed the situation on the declining birth-rate and ageing society paradigm caused by, among other things, urban migration, the decline of multi-generation households, sexless marriages, as well as computer gaming and pretty much anything else that might excuse policy makers from having to examine their own culpability in exacerbating the problem.
Is Japan alone in experiencing the social changes brought about by the transition from an industrial economy to a post-industrial, service- and information-based economy? I hardly think so.
Most advanced nations have undergone similar changes, but without the attendant demographic shifts and thinning out of the workforce. So, why is Japan losing its youthful vitality and what have other nations done differently?
The issue is the efficient use of available resources.
Given that the creation of home-grown human resources has a minimum lead time of about 21 years, it would be sensible to make use of those who are available by opening up the way for more immigration to fill currently unfilled posts. To those of us who hail from distant shores, this seems like a blindingly obvious solution.
Furthermore, it has long been my view that Japan’s greatest—yet least appreciated and leveraged—natural resource is its women.
Owing to currently restrictive social and infrastructural norms, the highly educated and competent women of this nation represent a massive brain-drain, as they exit the workplace to marry or have a child, and seldom return to a position that even comes close to making full use of their professional talents.
To give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe his due, he has started implementing policies aimed at easing the way for women by challenging corporate boards to raise the percentage of women in management to a minimum of 30%.
While this move is welcome and long overdue, I believe it does not go far enough. More needs to be done to increase the number of childcare facilities available, to make it easier for professional mums to get back into the workplace.
The restriction on visas for domestic help represents another impediment to women returning to work.
When I tried to sponsor a maid once, I was told by the Immigration Bureau of Japan that neither Japanese citizens nor foreign permanent residents—deemed sufficiently assimilated into Japanese culture to cope without domestic help—may sponsor a maid’s visa. Only expat chief executives are able to do so—provided they do not have permanent residence.
In Hong Kong and Singapore, employing foreign maids is seen as a natural way of stimulating the economy by enabling highly educated and qualified locals to work outside the home. Here in Japan, expediency now is forcing the Abe government to re-examine the issue.
This is despite the anachronous rantings of author and member of Abe’s 2013 education reform panel, Ayako Sono, who in a column in the Sankei Shimbun, wrote that, since learning about apartheid, she believes immigrant workers in Japan should live in separate, race-based zones.
Globally, there is a massive talent pool of people with the skills and vitality to make significant contributions to Japan’s ageing society. That none of the other G7 nations have prospered and sustained growth without significant immigration should be a lesson for Japan.
That is not to say there is no immigration to Japan, but simply that it is highly restricted and open mainly to professional elites. However, in order to create a diverse and sustainable workforce, the gates need to be opened much wider.
Allowed in should be economic migrants, more blue-collar workers, refugees and asylum seekers—who are brimming with drive and motivation to succeed. These people represent a massive under-employed skills resource. At a time when Japan purports to lack a sufficient labour force, there are talented, motivated people aplenty if only one has the eyes to see.
At first glance, this may seem a facile argument, failing to take into account Japan’s deeply entrenched island mentality.
While it would be vacuous to suggest that massive immigration comes without social upheaval, compared with the long-term risks of not allowing in more migrants, the inevitable social challenges attendant on a broader migration policy are very much the lesser of two evils.
Throughout history, one of the saving graces of the Japanese has been their ability to reinvent themselves quickly and shift direction as one.
Evidence of this includes the rapid social changes of the Meiji Restoration, the Taisho period of enlightenment, and the post-war Showa years of massive growth. In Japan, where there is a political will, there is a way.
I truly believe that, were the government to launch a sustained public education campaign highlighting the benefits of a more inclusive and diverse international society, the Japanese would come to accept the changes as not just inevitable, but also desirable.
It might take a generation for such a shift in attitude to take root but, if birth rates do not increase, recent Japanese demographic predictions point to a reduction in the Japanese population from the present roughly 120mn to some 80mn by 2050.
A generation is all the time left to address this problem.
Japan could enjoy benefits over the long term by opening its arms to the world, declaring that it is open for business, and welcoming hard-working dreamers, whatever their race. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games offer the perfect opportunity to ring the changes.