HANOI – Japan is gearing up to accept more foreign workers as its own population is on the brink of a steep decline, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Thursday.
Kono told a World Economic Forum meeting in Hanoi that Japan gains “value added” by accepting foreigners, especially since its aging population and low birth rate mean the country is shrinking by a half-million people a year.
“We cannot sustain our society like that,” he said in response to a question during a panel discussion. “We are opening up our country. We are opening up our labor market to foreign countries. We are now trying to come up with a new work permit policy so I think everyone shall be welcome in Japan if they are willing to assimilate into Japanese society.”
Japan has traditionally resisted accepting migrant workers, at times easing such restrictions but then re-imposing them during economic downturns. Many Japanese are uncomfortable with outsiders who might not speak their language or conform to expectations for how to behave.
Still, there are millions of foreigners living in Japan, including those who work in technical training-related programs or labor-short industries such as restaurants, construction and elderly care.
The country has gradually been loosening restrictions to enable families to hire domestic help. It also has short programs to bring in foreign nurses from Indonesia and other countries. But language requirements have made long-term employment in such jobs difficult.
Kono cited sports stars including tennis sensation Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, as an example of the benefits of welcoming outsiders. Osaka, who was born in Japan but raised in the United States, is being lauded by Japanese as the first from the country to win a Grand Slam singles tennis title.
“It’s good to have diversity. It’s good to have an open policy,” Kono said.
Also at the meeting, Kono and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh urged the United States to rejoin a sprawling Pacific trade deal, almost two years after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal dealt a major blow to what would have been the world’s largest free trade pact.
Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal in one of his first post-election moves as part of his “America First” clarion call, declaring the 12-nation trade pact a “job killer.”
The 11 remaining countries have pledged to move ahead with the deal, which could go into effect by the end of this year, although in a significantly watered-down version without the U.S.
They have kept a door open for Washington’s return, and have also not ruled out allowing other non-Pacific countries to join the deal.
“We believe TPP is still the best option for (the) United States,” Kono said, speaking at a WEF meeting where concerns over trade protectionism have dominated discussions.
“It will be very attractive for American industries, American farmers to join it.”
Japan, the largest remaining economy in the TPP, has led the charge to keep it alive.
The newly rebranded deal, dubbed the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and which forms a market of 500 million people, could go into effect by the end of 2018, Kono added.
Minh echoed Kono’s appeal, calling the deal “a very high-standard agreement.”
Vietnam stood to be the biggest winner from U.S. involvement before Trump’s withdrawal from the pact, which would have opened access to U.S. markets for its cheap manufactured goods — from shoes and shirts to mobile phones and computer processors.
For smaller signatories like Vietnam, unfettered access to U.S. markets was a major draw.
In its original iteration, the free trade bloc would have made up 38 percent of the global economy. Today, the remaining signatories comprise about 13.5 percent.
Japan and Vietnam’s comments come after Trump said in April the U.S. could re-enter the agreement if it was a “better” deal.
Leaders at this year’s regional WEF summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have railed against protectionism and called for breaking down trade barriers.
Trade in the region has grown at breakneck pace in the past decade, transforming some of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries into fast-growing export economies.
Earlier at the summit, which closed Thursday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo compared trade disputes to “infinity wars” — a reference to the latest Avengers movie — vowing to fight protectionism.
“Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s have trade wars erupted with the intensity that they have today,” said the leader, who is seeking re-election next year.
“But rest assured I and my fellow avengers stand ready to prevent Thanos from wiping out half the world population,” he said, referring to the film’s villain.