【para1】TAKEUCHI MASANOBU has a message for his compatriots: “If you order something, it arrives on time, if you go to the convenience store, you have cheap, good, food—that’s all sustained by foreigners.” Across Japan, foreigners are key in industries from farming to retailing. Vietnamese can be found in the fields of Yonaguni and the factories of Hokkaido. Chinese and Uzbeks man counters in Tokyo’s convenience stores. In Gunma Nepali staff help ageing proprietors of inns carry the futon. “They are the labour greasing the wheels of Japan’s convenience,” says Mr Takeuchi, a lawyer in Fukuoka, where one in every 55 workers is foreign, up from one in every 204 in 2009.
【para2】Japan may lack an immigration policy, but plenty come in by stealth. The number of foreign workers has trebled in a decade, albeit from a low base. Yet the system is rife with abuse, shown by the death this year of Wishma Sandamali, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman detained for overstaying her visa. The pandemic did not help: border controls left thousands stranded abroad. The government has hinted that it may allow low-skilled workers to stay permanently, but it has not taken up the cause of broader reform.
】Local leaders express more openness to foreigners than the stereotype of Japan as a shimaguni (island nation) suggests. “It’s key to bring in people from outside the prefecture, including those from overseas, to bring in new perspectives,” says Satake Norihisa, governor of Akita. “People with different backgrounds make Tokyo only more attractive,” says Ms Koike, its governor. “If they’re sincere and good people, I have no concerns about them coming—give them land and let them live here,” says Mr Itokazu, mayor of Yonaguni. “It doesn’t matter which country you’re from, we are all descended from apes.
】Forward-looking business leaders agree. “This is the time to define a better immigration policy,” says Mr Yanai, Fast Retailing’s founder. Attracting high-skilled workers is “key” to future competitiveness, says Niinami Takeshi, boss of Suntory, a drinks firm. Noda Seiko, from the LDP’s liberal wing, says it is time to consider ending the idea of “Japan as a country for Japanese people”. The public is becoming more open to foreigners. Familiarity helps. Nearly 32m foreigners visited Japan in 2019, up from fewer than 7m a decade earlier.
】Yet “there’s a limit to what local governments can do,” laments Toyama’s governor, Nitta Hachiro. Businesses must handle their own language training and social integration. Many foreigners are left without the support they need. The government “leaves the doors wide open for foreigners, but refuses to position Japan as an ‘immigration nation’,” says Hisamoto Kizo, Kobe’s mayor. Presented with a choice, voters may decide the risks of immigration outweigh the benefits. But a frank national discussion is long overdue.