When developed countries face challenges like an aging population, a shrinking workforce, and weak growth, one solution is to open up to immigrants.
Japan, instead, has tapped older women to join the workforce and is betting on robots to do the jobs humans once did. Companies are struggling in the face of labor shortages and worker dissatisfaction. Restaurants and fast-food chains are trying to tap “hardworking housewives.”
Historically, the country has been conservative about immigration and has not broadly signaled to foreigners that Japan could become home. Until recently, that’s kept immigration quite low. As of 2013, less than 2% of Japan’s population was made up of foreign nationals.
In recent months, these policy choices have sparked debate, with many observers insisting that immigration is the only realistic solution to Japan’s demographic woes. Others, like Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg, believe the country will have to do more than just open its doors—it needs to take steps towards truly assimilating newcomers by making Japan a more welcoming place.
Japan has made it difficult for foreigners to settle in the country. It has imposed complex tax structures, like a steep inheritance tax that applies to even short-term foreign residents, that force some to question whether they should reside in Japan for longer than a decade. Laws aside, foreigners tend to face lots of day-to-day discrimination—landlords can legally reject tenants on the grounds of their citizenship and ethnicity.
Some have even gone so far as to dub prime minister Shinzo Abe’s policies on immigration, “Japan first,” believing it will have dangerous repercussions for the Japanese economy. (Unlike many other leaders, Abe did not denounce Trump’s origin-based travel ban.)
Japan may finally be heeding this advice. This spring, the country restructured its immigration policy, modifying its five-year-old point-based system for “highly skilled foreign professionals.” The system allots applicants already living in the country points for different attributes like education, training, work experience and age. Rack up enough—at least 70 from among the categories below—and you can reside permanently in Japan after having lived there for three years.
Japan’s move for more openness is already taking effect—in 2016, the country hit a record 1 million foreigners working in the country.
If you’re “highly skilled,” the move should be fairly easy. The new policies are more open, in many ways, than those of the US or Canada—Japan has no caps on the number of permanent residents, doesn’t require permanent residence to apply for citizenship, and has promised to accelerate applications for highly qualified applicants to within an year. (With 80 points, you can apply for permanent residency within a year.)
What the system rewards—and what it doesn’t—says much about the values and priorities of the new Japan.
The three kinds of smart people Japan wants
The academic. Japan is seeking people specializing in “advanced academic research activities.” Think scholars, lecturers, educators, and researchers at public and private institutions. The quickest way to 70 points? Hold a doctoral degree (+30), have at least seven years of research experience (+15), be in your twenties (+15), and work for an organization that receives funding for innovation (+10). Patents and published papers earn points, too.
The technical expert. Japan is also looking for applicants participating in “advanced specialized/technical activities”—those with hyper-specialized skills in the sciences or humanities. This could include anyone from doctors and lab technicians to programmers. Unlike the highly skilled researcher, you don’t have to have a masters or doctoral degree, though either will earn more points. Still, with a bachelor’s (+10), a decade or more of work experience (+20), being in your early thirties (+10), and making at least ¥8 million ($70,600) each year, you’ll be well on the way toward 70 points.
The savvy business person. Japan wants executives, MBAs, and anyone really comfortable with a Bloomberg Terminal, otherwise known as those with “advanced business management activities.” Surprisingly, there are no bonus points for youth in this category. Instead, the system rewards advanced degrees (+20)—though you don’t get more for a doctorate—and if you make ¥30 million a year ($265,000), that adds a whopping 50 points.
Other things that can help you
Be young. The point system pays for youth—being in your twenties can earn 15 points if you’re a researcher or hold a technical job. That’s equivalent in point value to having earned a patent, possessing seven years of work experience, or knowing Japanese. It’s also more valuable than earning a degree from a Japanese university.
Have a lot of work experience. Get up to 25 points for having worked more than a decade in a business career. And you need at least three years of work experience, regardless of job type, to qualify for any points.
Speak Japanese. If you pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or have majored in Japanese, that’s 15 points in the bank.
Have a substantial income. Earning between ¥8 million and ¥10 million ($70,900 and $88,700) a year will get you 30 to 40 points, unless you’re a business manager—then the expectation is that you should make at least ¥10 million. To really be rewarded, you’ll need to make upwards of ¥20 million (+30, at least).
Ready to pack your bags? Consult this table (pdf) to tally up your points.