Japan, Southeast Asia and the Institutionalization of Borders to the Migration of Health-Care Professionals

Prof. Gabriele Vogt

This paper asks why Japan does not experience more international migration, and in particular so international labor migration. A country of economic wealth and political stability, Japan could be expected to be one of the major destinations of regional and global migration flows. However, its migrant population stands at a mere two percent of the overall population, and the number of non-Japanese who are active in the domestic workforce amounts to only one million. These figures are remarkably low for any OECD member country.

Since health-caregiving is one of Japan’s business sectors suffering from labor shortage, which – given the demographic outlook of the nation – must be expected to become even more severe in the years to follow, this sector serves as a case study to my paper. The economic pressure to open the domestic labor market can be expected to be high when labor become scarce. In fact, Japan has committed to the intake of health-care professionals from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam in three bilateral Economic Partnership Agreements closed with these countries starting in 2008.

Based on a qualitative content analysis of governmental documents and expert interviews, my paper sheds light onto processes of domestic and international policy making regarding international labor migration to Japan. Procedural and structural factors will be identified that have institutionalized borders to labor migration bound for Japan. Most prominently, these are: (a) conflicting interests among national-level policy makers that lead to a political stalemate and incoherent policies; and (b) Japan’s administrative decentralization moving forward without financial decentralization, which leads to local municipalities being overwhelmed with the task of socio-economic integration of the migrant population.

I argue that the institutionalization of borders to the migration of health-care professionals to Japan, is to some degree inherent in the political system itself. Yet, there is also no political will to overcome them, which supports my argument that the current migration schemes in Japan are systems that are indeed designed to fail. Even in the light of economic pressure, a political and societal consensus to accept large-scale labor migration into the country is lacking.