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Managing Immigration in the Age of Disruption: A Japanese system keeping up with the times
| Kenneth Lau | Adrian Goh

Managing Immigration in the Age of Disruption: A Japanese system keeping up with the times

Japan’s immigration system has long been a fascinating study of paradox.  On the one hand, it contains the streamlined processes and relatively quick processing times of what one might expect from a modern immigration system.  On the other hand, for the most part it remains a significantly manual process in which the rules are quite stringently applied.

Japan has been making efforts to adapt to the pressures of several disruptors that have emerged in recent years.  For example, Japan’s ageing population has resulted in a shortage in labor. To combat this, the government has turned to immigration to help with labor shortages in specific industries (particularly in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020).  We have seen this already with the 2019 introduction of two new work visa categories (Specified Skilled Worker 1 and Specified Skilled Worker 2) for foreign nationals entering Japan to work as semi-skilled workers in particular industries (which have been identified as experiencing labor shortages), especially in the construction sector.  

Japan has also made strides recently in revamping and liberalizing its Permanent Residence system, by creating additional categories of eligible applicants.  Whereas previously it could be a long ordeal in waiting out the typical 10-year residency requirement, the new rules grant eligibility for some foreign nationals who have only been in the country for a year (provided they meet additional eligibility requirements). This relaxed residency requirement was previously available only to applicants who fulfilled certain criteria (e.g., Child of Japanese nationals).

As for digitalization in the immigration space, Japan has also “caught the wave.”  For example, Japan recently made improvements to the biometric immigration procedures at the airport.  While Japan has had automated gates for some time now, it has only just started to introduce airport facial recognition initiatives in 2019.  Currently being rolled out across the major airports in Japan, the new technology will allow a Japanese national or temporary visitor to depart Japan by matching his/her face with the biometric data contained in the ePassport. This system is also available to Japanese nationals returning to Japan.  The enhanced system is meant to improve security and to better manage an increasing temporary visitor population.

Japan also recently introduced an online system for its work visa applications, but this may be a good example of how the struggle to keep up with the pressures of a disruptor (such as digitalization) has come up against a long-standing system.  While some may view the introduction of the online system as a leap towards modernization, there remain limitations.  For example, the system is currently available for visa renewal applications mainly (and other more ancillary applications).  However, the new online system is not yet available for the filing of Certificate of Eligibility applications (i.e., the main work authorization for foreign nationals to commence working in Japan).

The Japanese immigration system has certainly taken steps towards modernization and tackling the disruptors of today. However, Japan has appeared to do so in a more deliberate manner than perhaps other immigration systems around the world, which have already had some of these measures (i.e., online applications, biometrics, etc.) in place for some time. It must be remembered that Japan is also implementing these measures against the backdrop of an already-streamlined system, which has brought up some interesting unanswered questions: Will the modernization efforts eventually extend to all aspects of the Japanese immigration process?  Will adjudication standards be adapted to these new processes quickly or will they remain rigid in their application (which has been the case in the past)?  Will the Japanese experience be a harbinger for how other countries dealing with similar disruptors (particularly other industrialized nations with ageing populations) tackle immigration requirements?  How the new Japanese systems and processes address these questions remain to be seen, but it is clear that the country has recognized the disruptors and is attempting to tackle them.