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How contact and English proficiency can help Japan’s immigration policy

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

With the foreign population in Japan expected to grow in the future, policymakers have an interest in promoting a more positive view of immigration. Current public opinion toward immigration in Japan, like in much of the rest of the world, is generally negative. But recent public opinion data shows that individuals who are more likely to come in contact with foreigners or who self-assess as being of high English speaking proficiency are more supportive of increases in immigration.

Like many developed countries, Japan faces the demographic shortfalls brought on by an ageing society with a long life expectancy and a low birth rate. Both in and outside of Japan, concerns are rising regarding the solvency of social security systems, inadequate healthcare resources and shrinking workforces. While other western countries have been able to use immigration to help slow population ageing, immigration rates in Japan remain low. Japan’s foreign population stands at 2.1 million people, or 1.6 per cent of the overall population — one of the smallest immigrant concentrations in the developed world. Japan also has one of the world’s fastest ageing societies.

The Japanese government has been quietly opening the door to increased immigration through various initiatives. Japan has been actively recruiting foreign students and trainees from other Asian countries, giving individuals with Japanese heritage residency and permission to work, and offering greater incentives for highly skilled foreign professionals.

As the Abe government is looking to expand Japan’s foreign population, it must consider what influences public opinion towards immigration. According to data from the Japan General Social Survey for 2010 (the most recent one available), most Japanese individuals are against immigration. Around 63 per cent of the population opposes increasing immigration rates. But this statistic belies some diversity within the country.

Traditional migration literature tends to show that education level, household income and employment status positively affect attitudes toward immigration, but no such link exists in Japan. This is likely due to Japan’s low unemployment rate and educated, largely egalitarian populace. The foreign population remains small, so the usual argument for why populations are opposed to immigration — concern over immigrants taking native jobs — appears to hold little merit in Japan. Culture, language and security issues are the more likely to be areas of concern. Older individuals and those with children are less favourable toward immigration.

But the areas with some of the largest foreign populations — including the greater Tokyo area (Kanto) and central Japan (Chubu) — show more positive attitudes.

Individuals whose English conversation levels are self-assessed to be high have some of the most positive outlooks toward immigrants in Japan. English conversation seems to have a strong, and perhaps unexpected, effect on positive attitudes toward immigration. But a high level of English reading proficiency does not seem to have an effect. None of Japan’s top foreign nationalities (Chinese, Korean and Brazilian) are native English speakers, but English conversation ability is still strongly associated with a more positive outlook on immigration.

Why is this? Migration literature often concludes that ‘contact’ with immigrants mitigates anti-immigrant sentiment. In Japan, contact can have a positive effect on public opinion toward immigration; regions with larger foreign populations tend to have more favourable views on immigration. But immigrant numbers remain small in Japan, particularly outside of the urban centres. In lieu of actual contact with foreign residents, some effort toward ‘internationalisation’ — in this case developing English conversation ability — can also have a positive effect. Even minimal contact with a foreign element, such as the superficial contact through developing spoken English skills, may play a role in reducing anti-immigrant sentiment in Japan.

As the Japanese government looks to increase the foreign population, it should consider improving the average English conversation ability as a way of promoting positive perceptions of immigrants.


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