In recent months, Japan has borne witness to a series of various important events occurring with a greater frequency. And as they become increasingly staggered, processes within the nation’s political life begin to speed up as a result.
We could refer, for instance, to the issue (discussed on numerous occasions in the New Eastern Outlook) of relocating the US base, Futenma, in Okinawa. This situation has not been diffused, and instead it will, in all likelihood, transform from a relatively local conflict between the central government and the prefecture’s administration into one of national importance.
The problem of increasing labor shortages (stemming from long-standing issues of lower birth rates and an ageing population) also seems significant, and the government plans on resolving it by using migrant workers.
These and other issues have become subjects of lively debates at political forums, in administrative bodies and the National Diet. This war of words among supporters of various political factions will probably only intensify as the date, scheduled for July 2019, to re-elect half the members of the upper house in the House of Councillors approaches.
Since the last time we broached the topic of moving the Futenma base, several events have transpired that demonstrate the situation is really not ready for a resolution. And this, seemingly, is what the Japanese Central Government as well as the US military command (for now in the observer’s role) had been hoping for.
The new Governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, supported by the Prefectural Assembly, has been increasingly active in trying to resolve this issue. Once his invitation, extended to US senators, to visit Okinawa was declined, he then went to the United States in the middle of December.
In the USA., Denny Tamaki proposed an initiative to stage three-way negotiations (i.e. in the format the US administration – Japanese government – Governor of Okinawa Prefecture) on revising the plans to relocate the Futenma base from Ginowan to the scarcely populated Henoko Bay area, also located on the Okinawa Island. Second-tier officials from the US Department of State met with the Governor and informed him that Washington was inclined to honor the agreements, reached on this issue with Tokyo.
Earlier, the Prefectural Assembly had approved an initiative, proposed by a group of its residents, to stage a referendum and demonstrate their disapproval of the current plans to relocate the Futenma base to Henoko. Based on the latest updates, it is scheduled for 24 February 2019 and even today it is difficult to have any doubts about its outcome.
It is also quite important to mention that certain groups of people from the United States have begun supporting Okinawan protesters. These groups include “environmentalists” (well known for their increased efforts all over the world). They took their concerns about the potential threat posed by the base, being constructed in Henoko, to the environment and health of rare sea mammals, dugong, to Californian courts.
In December, within a 10-day period, a US citizen of Japanese descent collected 100,000 American signatures online in order to officially petition the White House to temporarily halt the construction work in Henoko until the referendum results are announced. The message that accompanies this request ends with a touching sentence “Please show Okinawans that America is indeed an honorable and GREAT nation”.
Nevertheless, all of these protests have only produced a lot of hot air so far. On 5 December a local branch of Japan’s High Court confirmed the decision made by a lower tier court by rejecting demands from the Okinawa prefectural government to halt the construction work in Henoko. After that (on 14 December) the process of dumping construction material into the enclosed Henoko Bay waters, where the future base is to be built, resumed.
Another noteworthy development was the refusal by the mayor of Miyakojima (located on the island of Miyako-jima in the Okinawa Prefecture) to take part in the upcoming referendum. This, unquestionably, undermines Denny Tamaki’s efforts to present “a united front” on the issue of relocating the Futenma base.
A similar level of unease within the Japanese political landscape stems from the (more and more pressing) issue of attracting migrant workers to compensate for the growing labor shortage in the nation. According to forecasts, Japan’s population in the 15-to-64 age range will have almost halved by 2060.
In addition, while the overall supply-demand ratio for workplaces is equivalent to 1.56, for the (poorly-paid) medical personnel positions this ratio has already exceeded 4.0.
What makes the problem even more acute is the Japanese citizens’ traditionally wary attitude towards the possibility that a large group of foreigners will remain in the country long-term (as opposed to their truly welcoming nature when it comes to mass tourism). Japan is yet to embark on a path, taken by Western Europe over an almost 60-year period.
Hence, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe says that this problem will not be resolved by opening the nation to “mass migration”. According to his statements, the government intends to use a “purposeful” recruitment of foreigners for some economic sectors, which are facing the most acute labor shortages.
With this aim in mind, on 8 December the National Diet, at the government’s initiative, overhauled the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, adopted as far back as 1951. The key novelty became the introduction of two new visa categories for incoming foreigners.
The first category visa will allow a migrant worker (without family members) to reside in Japan for up to 5 years. Its goal is to attract “lesser skilled” foreigners to work, for instance, in entry level healthcare jobs and in agriculture.
The second category visa is meant for “more qualified” migrants (and “some” members of their families) to work in sectors such as construction and shipping industries. And, “some” second category visa holders will be allowed to extend their stay or even become permanent residents in the nation. But in any case, all migrant workers will most likely never be able to obtain Japanese citizenship.
During the heated debate, which flared up, on the “update” to the immigration act, objections that are polar opposite in nature have been voiced. For some, these amendments mark the start of the process of radical cultural, ethnic and religious changes in Japan.
Others (mainly members of business communities) believe that introducing such lawful “half-measures” will not resolve the overall problem, which stems from the fact that more labor (up to 400,000 people) will already be required in the nearest future.
As for the issue of the Northern Territories dispute and a peace treaty with the Russian Federation, from the author’s viewpoint, it is not a priority in comparison to the other problems that concern the Japanese society nowadays. One is left with the impression, that the Japanese have entrusted the responsibility for it solely to their Prime Minister. It is highly unlikely that the Japanese society will, in any way, seriously oppose even an (unpopular) resolution of this issue, which Shinzō Abe may decide on during the upcoming negotiations with the Russian President.
It seems appropriate to mention at this stage that even at present the current Prime Minister is already viewed as one of the most respected government officials in Japan during the post-war period. And the latest public opinion polls, by and large, confirm the fairly high approval ratings he has enjoyed, which (according to various sources) remain within the 37-47% margin. And this is considering the fact that Shinzō Abe has continued to serve as Japan’s Prime Minister since the end of 2012 (he also held this post from 2006 to 2007).
Another important event became the approval of the Five-Year Defense Program and a long-term (for a 10-year period) national security defense strategy on 18 December. But these documents deserve their own commentary.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”