Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Learn Japanese, get a Visa

Last week the Japanese foreign ministry tentatively suggested that language proficiency be connected to long-term visas. Now, the first (and natural) reaction would be that "oh, another ploy to keep as many foreigners out of the country as possible", but this really does not seem to be the case. Instead, is seems the purpose is the opposite, making it easier than before to gain a long-term visa as a way to promote language fluency, and to have more long-term immigrants be proficient in the language.

New Torii Practice, practice - just not on national cultural treasures, please.

The announcement was very careful about emphasizing that it would not make it more difficult to gain visas for non-speakers than it already is today; instead the purpose is to make it easier for those who do gain Japanese proficiency to stay. The article in Japan Today gives as an example lessening the required work experience for engineers if they have attained a certain level of language fluency. Other sources have implied that the term length of visas to be granted could be affected as well; several kinds of visas (like spouse of a Japanese national) actually come in several terms - like six months, a year and three years - before they need to be renewed, and one suggestion is apparently to give proficient speakers the longer-term visas earlier.

This is actually a very good idea, and one that I suspect they can get very broad support for. It hits all the right buttons for a lot of people: liberals will like the prospect of making it easier for committed people to stay; the right-wing nationalists will love the idea of making the Japanese language a requirement for anything; business interests will like the broadening pool of skilled employees being made available. And for us foreigners - yes, it's a good thing for us too. Remember, the idea is not to make it more difficult than it already is if you don't know Japanese (and to be fair, Japan is really not that difficult, visa-wise, compared to a lot of countries), but you get a real, substantial benefit if you do choose to spend all that time studying.

All statements are very vague, but the general consensus seems to be (and I agree) that this really is a preparative step in accepting more long-term immigration in response to the shrinking workforce. And - coming from a country with a large number of immigrants - since many of the problems associated with immigration stem in part from a lack of language ability, making this a condition is only prudent. It's not like Japan would be particularly exceptional if this was enacted either; Canada, for instance, gives you a bonus both for knowing English and French if you want to move there.

And really - people who are indifferent or negative towards a country do not spend years studying its language. The kind of people that willingly go through with something like that are enthusiastic, even passionate, about it, and should be exactly the kind of people you'd want to encourage to come.

I think this plan may actually be further along than the articles say and than people think. The article in Japan Today above specifically mentions the JLPT as the test to use for measuring proficiency, and there's what seems to be quite solid rumours that the JLPT is being redesigned right now, with a new, intermediate level between level 2 and the top level 1. A long-standing criticism of the test has been that the jump from 2 to 1 is very large, and that level 1 tests a lot of things that aren't very useful in daily life. The redesign is rumoured to add an intermediate level, while possibly push the current level 1 a bit further still. Another rumour - less reliable - hints at the test will be given twice a year rather than just once. The new test is apparently due to be tried out this summer and deployed for real in 2009.

As it happens, an intermediate level above level 2 would be perfect as a "proficient" level for work-related purposes. Level 2 itself is still a little on the low side, while the current level 1 is overkill in several ways. Having a "pre-1" that focuses on proficiency in practical use and making level 1 a real nerdcore test of obscure language points would both make for a better test and fit nicely with these visa plans. And, of course, making the JLPT count for visa determinations means you need to give the test reasonably often so that people don't get left hanging. The rumours of giving it twice a year thus fit in nicely as well.

If the new test is now designed to be rolled out in spring 2009, then that would give textbook authors time to create new study materials and give the test administration a year - a spring session and a winter session - to iron out any problems if the new immigration law is adopted in the spring Diet session a year from now and implemented from April 1st 2010. Time will tell, but I hope it'll happen.


  1. Janne -

    You are being too kind to the ministries--the special visa status for engineers described in The Japan Times article is clearly in direct response to a request from the Keidanren. Under the proposal described, Japanese corporations would be able to hire more young foreign (Chinese) engineers and keep them on the payroll--just when young Japanese engineers were finally able to get some pricing power in terms of their starting salaries.

    The real test of the liberality of the proposed immigration changes remains whether or not a high-scoring foreign worker will be put on a fast track to permanent residency--the real prize in this game. If not, the changes are at best a ruse. The government will be telling foreign workers, "If you adopt a more Japanese way of life then you will be closer freely choosing where you can live and work"--while holding those foreign workers in quarantine outside the gates.

  2. This is a big can of worms (and that's why I spent half the evening yesterday thinking about your comment). The whole issue of open economies, movement of labour, money and goods, trade policy and so on is way bigger than I am prepared to even try tackle. This again feels like it should be a whole series of posts, not a comment, so just a few points, with little in the way of conclusions, in no particular order:

    * The push for greater immigration comes from the impending lack of workers in proportion to non-working people (retirees). And much of the direct economic benefit of immigration comes in the form of a larger workforce. More people working means a larger economy.

    * The problem Japan is facing is the _proportion_ of working to non-working people, not absolute numbers. As I've written before, Sweden does splendidly with a working population one thirteenth of Japans (in a larger country); there's economies doing just finw with even higher density of people than Japan.

    The number of jobs is never fixed; to a large degree work expands (or contract) to use the available resources. The idea that there is a fixed number of jobs that are to be portioned out is a fallacy (one that more than a few European countries have got in trouble over). What can (and does) happen in individual professions is that they may become too many or too few compared to all other resources for a given type of job.

    * With working people becoming scarce, their salaries tend to shoot up. If you solve the scarcity, salaries will tend to drop. But salaries don't help solve the discrepancies, it only puts pressure to do something about it. Sure, raise salaries enough and you'll get more people entering the profession. But then, that just makes a shortage worse in some other field. To resolve the shortage you need people. One way is to export the work, not just the results of the work. This becomes extra attractive for export-facing firms and economies, where movign the production closer to their customers may be beneficial overall. The other option is to move people to the work rather than the other way around.

    To some degree, the "raise salaries" versus "accept immigration" is a mirage; the actual choice may be "accept immigration" or "move those jobs overseas" - "move work and people doing the work to the same place" in short.

    * The big economic news the past ten years really isn't the emergence of China, India and so on. The big news is that a very large amount of people in the developing world is finally starting to catch up with us. But since everything is relative in economics (literally relative, in terms of value and pricing power) another way of seeing that is inevitably that we're slowing down to catch up with them. Now, the economy as a whole is growing as well, so it's not that we are actually giving up previous advances; instead the effect is that today a lot of the world economy growth is going to the developing world, not to us. Which overall is a very good thing.

    It also means they - like your Chinese engineer - are starting to compete with us more directly. Again, a good thing for them and for the world. It is inevitable; a country pulling itself out of poverty and into the industrialized world must mean a country able to compete well with other industrialized nations as a necessary consequence. But it _also_ means that the competitive advantage those societies have had in much lower costs (for salaries, land and so on) is also evaporating.

    Your Chinese engineer is still wanted by the Keidanren members because he's pretty inexpensive. But he's a lot less inexpensive now than just a few years ago, and in another ten or twenty years he won't be affordable anymore; he'll get a better deal at home (especially counting the pain and disrutption of moving abroad) than Japanese companies will be able to offer here.

    We mostly never got a flood of cheap educated labour into west Europe when the eastern economies became members; they've mostly stayed at home watching their salaries and standard of living approaching western levels instead, with much less disruption to life. The exception has been to work where there's been a real shortage in the western countries, and there's been a good deal of young just-out-of-school people going abroad to work for a while as part of gaining experience.


    Language and residency: I see this slightly differently than you, I think. I don't expect "fast-track" residency for proficient applicants. I fully expect Japanese proficiency to become a requirement for residency, and I'm actually a little bewildered as to why that hasn't been a condition from the very beginning. It should be.

    If such a language rule would also lead to clearer, more formalized rules for residency overall then that would be a worthwhile benefit in itself. Right now the rules are very vague and a lot of decision power is left at the whim of the individual case handlers, resulting in some very arbitrary decisions and a complete lack of consistency (and it probably part reason why the application process is so very, very slow).

  3. Janne -

    Thanks for the long and deeply thought-out response.

    We shall agree to disagree-and dinner is on me when you and you wife come up to Tokyo.


  4. I'm not even sure we do disagree, actually; I haven't been able to make up my mind on a lot of these issues yet.

    Oh, and we're not married yet :)

  5. Mtc,

    I don't know if "liberality" is on the government's list of considerations.


    This topic is, as you say, a long one. I've always felt that the Japanese government has done a miserable job of promoting Japanese language studies. As far as immigration goes, I would argue that the quality of life in the US has gone down dramatically in some ways in the last three decades. To some extent, this has been driven by immigration. For one thing, it is now hard for a family to survive without having the wife work.

    This isn't meant as an attack on immigration, but it certainly seems to have been used by the elite in their war on the lower 90%, at least in the US. It seems that no matter what job I have, that industry "needs" more workers to drive down wages, but the CEOs keep seeing their salaries skyrocket, even when they do a lousy job.

    When you say "the economy as a whole is growing as well", I think you may be accepting the use of GDP as a measure of how a society is doing. I would say it would be better to look at living standard or development indices for a more balanced view.

    Apologies, as maybe I just have too jaded a perspective as an American having watched the US come to the decline and fall stage of its empire.

  6. I passed Level 2 within half a year of coming to Japan. I failed Level 1 about half a dozen times. Got close once, and then went downhill after that. Then I gave up. You've got to study for it -- it's not something that you can just pass with Japanese learned in everyday life, and there are enough trick questions to make it hard. When I almost passed it, it was only because I aced the aural comprehension and did O.K. on the reading, because the grammar/writing part was just too tricky.

    I also passed the JETRO test Level 2 easily, but failed Level 1 a couple of times. But it seemed like a much more reasonable test. There's even a special Level 1 that involves actual conversation.

    I don't want to open a can of worms here, but there is quite a lot of cheating in the JLPT. I never knew anyone in my test rooms, and they are assigned randomly, but somehow there would be groups of Chinese in the same room who would know each other and help each other out. The proctors are meek college students doing it as a part-time job, and they don't want to make a scene.These are the types of things you notice when you take the test as many times as I have! :-)


Comment away. Be nice. I no longer allow anonymous posts to reduce the spam.