A group of Mongolian students and foreign workers.

Japan needs immigrants, but do immigrants need Japan?

Updated 8:23 PM ET, Fri December 7, 2018

The series on Japan's demographic reckoning is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. None of the material in this series may be reproduced without an explicit credit to CNN and the Pulitzer Center.

Tokyo (CNN)One of the first concepts Linh Nguyen learned while studying Japanese was "uchi-soto."

It refers to the practice of categorizing people into one of two groups -- insiders or outsiders. Family, friends and close acquaintances are insiders, referred to as "uchi," while "soto" is for those relegated to the periphery.
Japan's new immigration law

A proposed amendment to the immigration law, if passed, will create two new visas for foreign workers.

The first, renewable for up to 5 years, would cover semi-qualified, blue-collar workers, and is aimed at plugging gaps in areas such as care-giving and manufacturing.

The second type, which would have no renewal limit, is aimed at attracting high-skilled workers. Both visas require proficiency in Japanese.

For this Japan-obsessed student in Vietnam, it felt like a warning: she could be about to enter a deeply closed society that would always consider her an outsider.
Ultimately, though, that was not Nguyen's experience. The 25-year-old discovered that Japan was slowly changing.
As Japan's population gets older and smaller, the government is struggling to balance its own deeply conservative views on immigration with the need for new and younger workers. Public opinion is on the side of change. Despite perceptions of xenophobia, a 2018 Pew survey revealed that 59% of Japanese believed immigrants would actually make the country stronger.
This week, Japanese lawmakers approved a policy change proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that will create new visa categories to allow an estimated 340,000 foreign workers to take both high-skilled and low-wage jobs in Japan over the next five years.
While this represents a major shift in Japan's approach to immigration, many experts argue it doesn't go far enough.
Vietnamese student Linh Nyugen came to Japan to pursue higher education.

Shrinking nation

Japan is already a "super-aged" nation -- meaning that more than 20% of its population is over 65 years old. Just 946,060 babies were born in 2017, a record low since official records began in 1899, while an increase in deaths accelerated the population decline.
The decline means a shrinking cohort of workers is left supporting an increasingly elderly population in need of healthcare and pensions.
But Japan isn't the only country with such a problem.
Germany is a also a "super-aged" nation. And by 2030, the US, UK, Singapore and France are expected to have earned that status. While the EU and US veer towards populism and adopt anti-immigrant stances, in Asia nations are competing for new arrivals, potentially reversing the power balance between immigrants and host countries.
If Abe is to prevent Japan's population from dipping below 100 million by 2060, he will need to provide migrants good reasons to choose the country, says Hisakazu Kato, an economics professor at Meiji University in Tokyo.
A 2015 Pew survey exploring how people in Asia-Pacific see each other revealed that a median of 71% of people in the region held a favorable view of Japan, with positive views exceeding negative sentiment by more than five-to-one.
Nguyen points to Japan's solid environmental practices and strong safety record as appealing factors.
But the country's historic failure to integrate previous waves of foreign workers raises questions as to why migrants would choose to come to Japan.
Faced with labor shortages in the 1990s Japan revised its immigration rules to offer long-term, renewable visas to the descendants of Japanese immigrants who had moved to Latin American after World War II.
But when the economy slumped in 2008, the government urged those same immigrants to return to Brazil and the other Latin American nations where they had moved from.
"Japan treats its foreign workers like Kleenex," says Jeff Kingston, a Japanese studies professor at Temple University. "They have a use-it, toss-it mentality."

Other options nearby

Singapore has a very different track record. Since independence in 1965, the small South-east Asian city state has built a diverse society by taking in large numbers of immigrants from neighboring Asian countries.
Today, foreigners make up more than one-third of Singapore's labor force, though conditions are challenging for low-skilled laborers and numerous abuses exist.
On its website, the Singapore government states that non-resident foreigners do jobs Singaporeans don't want, and do not compete with locals for high-paying professional or managerial jobs. "They are here to help build our homes, keep our roads clean, and make our lives just a little more comfortable," the website says.
The new visa will allow blue collar workers to stay in Japan for up to five years.
Experts argue that Japan lags behind other industrialized countries in extolling the benefits of immigration to its domestic population. "The government needs to sell how these people contribute to pensions and economic growth," Kingston says.
As immigration policy has failed to keep up with demand, temporary fixes have plugged the gap. Foreigners on student visas, for example, can work up to 28 hours per week -- but Japan has been accused of using students to fill labor shortages.
Nguyen, who is studying for a masters degree, is one of thousands of young international students and foreign workers trying to make a go of it in Japan. In 2018, the number of foreign residents reached a record high of 2.5 million, although that's still only 2% of Japan's total population.
On a bustling Tokyo side street is the office of Inbound Japan, a concierge service and cultural interpreter for foreign students struggling to navigate living and working in Japan.
Yusuke Furumi at work in the Inbound Japan office with his Vietnamese colleague, Angel Phan.