The Japanese government believes the nation needs to address the problems of a falling birth rate and a rapidly ageing population, but the general public remains wary of outsiders. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
The Japanese government is finally coming around to the idea that the nation needs to open its borders to foreign workers if it wants to avoid a crisis of labor and population in the years ahead, although the general public is likely to take a good deal longer before it welcomes outsiders with open arms.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reopened the debate on immigration in early October when he told a meeting of an advisory panel in national strategic economic zones that more workers are required in the agriculture sector if new life is to be breathed into Japanese farming.
According to the ministry of agriculture, 1.92 million people are employed in the agriculture sector, a decline of 8.3 percent and down 40 percent from the figure as recently as 1990.
A scheme for foreign technical trainees in the agriculture sector was introduced in 1993, but it has been widely criticized as providing little more than slave labor for farming companies.
As well as decimating the communities of rural Japan, the increasing shift from rural regions to the cities has serious implications for food security.
Care sector employees
Similarly, the rules on nursing workers will be relaxed in certain parts of the country to permit more care sector employees from overseas to work in Japan.
Abe told the advisory panel that the new legislation is being drawn up and could be in effect by the start of the new fiscal year, in April 2017.
New statistics from the Committee for Japan's Future, another government task force, underline the scale of the problem in a nation that has known for decades that it faces a demographic time bomb. The committee has predicted that Japan's working population will tumble from more than 77 million today to 55 million by 2060, even if the retirement age is lifted to 70.
Experts also predict that when the elderly population accounts for fully 40 percent of the total population - which will contract from 125 million in 2020 to 107 million in 2050 - Japan will experience economic problems associated with a shrinking tax base and a growing elderly sector requiring pensions and healthcare.
The obvious answer, according to Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, is permitting large-scale immigration.
"Prior to 1990, few foreigners were accepted to come and live in Japan because we already had an enormous population," he told DW. "At that time it was the same as the populations of Britain and France together. So there was no need to bring people to Japan to work."
Europe's 'guest workers'
"From the 1950s in Europe, France and Germany had 'guest workers,' but if some localized areas in Japan had a shortage of labor, then the government was able to move people to that area from other parts of the country or introduce women to the workforce. But with the arrival of the 'bubble years,' we suddenly had a shortfall in workers and the rules were relaxed for skilled immigrants," Sakanaka said.
He points out that while one in every 10 people in countries such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom are originally from another country, foreigners only account for 1.74 percent of the total population of Japan.
Yet the Japanese public remains to be convinced.
"We are a very homogenous people and, until relatively recently, we were reluctant to accept migrants - an attitude that was encouraged by certain sectors of the mass media that pushed a nationalistic attitude," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
"There has been the fear that unrestricted immigration would lead to an inundation of Chinese economic migrants landing in Japan," he told DW. "And those fears have been heightened in recent years by stories in the popular press about the problems that are being experienced in the European project."
And while the Japanese media makes great play of terrorist outrages - such as the coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015, the March 2016 bombings in Brussels and the killing of 84 people in Nice on Bastille Day in July - there is little coverage of the humanitarian crises in countries such as Syria, which have led to floods of refugees attempting to find peace and security outside their homelands.
Consequently, all foreigners looking to settle abroad are conflated with the extremists who have detonated bombs and attacked nightclubs, airports and restaurants in European cities.
Japanese 'very shy'
"Japan is an island country and we are very shy when we come into contact with foreigners, even in our own country," said Kanako, a housewife from Yokohama, who would only give her first name.
"We do not hear much about what is going in the Middle East, but of course I feel sad when I hear stories about children in Syria," she said. "But I have heard too many stories about problems that immigrants have caused in Germany, in Britain, in France to say we should just open our doors to immigrants."
That reluctance to provide shelter to refugees and asylum seekers extends to the authorities, with just 27 people granted asylum in 2015, of the 7,500 who applied. In the 22 years up to 2004, an average of 15 people were granted asylum per year. And whereas the percentage of people who are granted asylum in Germany and Canada comes to around 30 percent, the figure averages 0.2 percent in Japan.
Even the government's planned new regulations for workers in the agriculture and nursing care sectors is not the radical rethink of the issue that some are calling for. The jobs will not provide guarantees of residency, and those who take part will be required to return to their home countries once their contracts have been completed.
"The government apparently sees this as a stop-gap solution for a period of several decades, until Japan's population situation stabilizes in a positive manner," said Okumura. "But that assumes that the nation's birth rate is going to climb again. I don't think we can assume that."