The Yomiuri Shimbun 6:45 pm, April 21, 2014
In-depth discussions needed over hiring of more foreign workers
With the shrinking of this country’s workforce as a result of the rapid graying of society and the chronically low birthrate, Japan now faces the major challenge of meeting the nation’s manpower needs to ensure its society remains vigorous.
Under the circumstances, the government has begun studying the effective use of foreign workers in such sectors as construction and nursing care services. The first issue to be taken up is significantly increasing the number of foreign workers in the construction industry.
With the sharp rise in demand for construction related to facilities for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, the industry is expected to face acute manpower shortages.
Regarding the plan for accepting technical trainees from developing countries—the Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Program—the government plans to extend the period of stay for trainees in this country to up to six years, from the current three years, if they work in the construction industry. The planned extension will be temporary, effective from fiscal 2015 until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. The step appears to be a last-ditch, stopgap measure to cope with the extreme shortage of construction workers.
In regard to the government-backed foreign trainee program, a slew of instances involving violations of the Labor Standards Law have been reported, including nonpayment of wages. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry must bolster surveillance procedures to crack down on wrongful labor practices.
Labor shortages are also serious in the nursing care service sector. Due to the graying of society, the number of nursing care workers across the country should be increased by 1 million by 2025, according to a government estimate.
However, the foreign nursing care workers accepted by this country have been strictly limited to people from such countries as Indonesia who come to Japan with the aim of acquiring qualifications as certified welfare workers under economic partnership agreements between Japan and these countries. The number of people who passed certification examinations totaled about 240 since the start of the program in fiscal 2008, far short of making up for the labor shortage.
Boost working conditions
Without opening the door wider for foreigners with vocational skills, the future rise in demand for labor can never be met. The government should study the feasibility of adopting a new vocational certification examination system.
It is also essential for the government to help foreigners who wish to work here as nursing care workers to improve their Japanese-language capabilities, as communication in Japanese is indispensable in the field.
One major factor behind the labor shortages in the construction and nursing care sectors may be because young Japanese who find employment in these businesses tend to quit their jobs very soon. This is mainly because wages in these sectors are lower than in other industries, making young workers worried about making long-term plans for the future.
As long as companies remain dependent on cheap labor from overseas, wage levels of these firms are bound to remain static, and as a result they will continue to be unable to secure sufficient workers. It is vitally important for them to improve working conditions for Japanese workers, such as by introducing a regular wage raise system and a framework conducive to enhancing their vocational careers.
The government has hammered out a policy of encouraging women and the elderly to find employment. In sectors where there is still a labor shortage despite this policy, the government must come up with steps to make better use of labor from abroad.
If foreign workers can be employed to do housework, the ratio of women joining the nation’s workforce will increase.
There are now about 700,000 foreign workers in the country. Considering the possibility of cultural friction between foreign workers and Japanese and the impact on the nation’s public security, foreign workers should not be brought into the country in a haphazard manner.
How should foreign workers be brought into this country and how should they be utilized? The time is ripe for the government and private sector to discuss these matters extensively.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 21, 2014)
April 21, 2014
EDITORIAL: Don’t miss the window of opportunity opening for Japan-China thaw
There have been some tentative signs of a thaw in the frosty relationship between Japan and China.
Japan and China are at loggerheads over a slew of thorny issues both in the past and at present. That’s exactly why it is so important for the two countries to repair their ties so that they can have a normal diplomatic dialogue.
Some notable exchanges have taken place recently between the two countries.
It has been revealed that Hu Deping, a Chinese pro-Japan advocate with close ties to President Xi Jinping, secretly met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo earlier this month.
Yohei Kono, the former Lower House speaker, met with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang on April 15 in Beijing. During the meeting, Wang criticized Abe but nevertheless said, “We hope the Japanese business community will make efforts to overcome the difficulties (in the bilateral relationship) and contribute to improving the relationship.”
In addition, Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe will visit Beijing from April 24 to 26. It is the first time in as many as 18 years that the chief of the Tokyo metropolitan government has been formally invited to visit Beijing, which has a friendship city agreement with the Japanese capital. China’s Foreign Ministry has issued a statement welcoming Masuzoe’s visit.
The two countries, which are such close neighbors, should not remain estranged as they are now. If both sides are seeking to figure out a way to mend ties, that’s good news.
Some efforts were also made to improve the situation last year.
Even after China made a provocative move to suddenly establish an air defense identification zone in areas over the East China Sea including the disputed Senkaku Islands, diplomats from Tokyo and Beijing continued their exchanges to turn around bilateral ties.
But Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine the following month caused bilateral exchanges to come to a halt.
The Xi administration, which has been ratcheting up criticism of Japan over history-related issues, is unwilling to make an overt move to seek reconciliation with Tokyo unless Abe makes a concession.
Beijing has probably decided to limit its efforts to patch up the ties to economic and private-sector exchanges while taking a wait-and-see approach toward Abe.
But issues concerning views about history are not the only obstacles to improvement of the bilateral relations.
For many years, China has been dangerously expanding its military capacity in its efforts to enhance its influence in surrounding areas. China’s aggressive military buildup and increasingly assertive behavior have created tension in neighboring areas including Japan.
Dialogue between the defense officials of both countries is necessary for preventing unnecessary clashes.
The establishment of a system to ensure safety in actions in the sky and the sea taken by the two countries in states of alert would help improve the security environment in the region.
On the economic front, Japan and China have a strong complementary relationship. China still needs Japanese technologies, while Japan needs China’s market and labor.
Tokyo and Beijing should start talks to enhance their bilateral economic relations including efforts to accelerate the negotiations for a three-way free trade agreement among Japan, China and South Korea.
Concerns about China’s rapidly growing military power are widely shared by Pacific Rim countries.
But many countries in the region, including the United States, have been maintaining relations with China based on active bilateral talks on various issues instead of cutting off dialogue between the leaders.
Japan and China once agreed to promote mutually beneficial strategic relations between them. That means both sides should try to find a way to promote coexistence and co-prosperity even if there are serious disputes and disagreements.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 20
The Yomiuri Shimbun 7:13 pm, April 18, 2014
Measures urgently needed to cope with, reduce number of elderly living alone
As the people born during the postwar baby boom have begun entering the later stages of their lives, one out of every four people in Japan is now aged 65 or older.
Working out measures to address the challenges posed by the nation’s rapid aging—a situation without parallel in the rest of the world—is an unmistakably urgent matter.
The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry released population estimates as of Oct. 1, 2013, in which people aged 65 and over comprised more than 25 percent of the population for the first time. Nearly 31.9 million had celebrated their 65th birthday.
Japan’s population has contracted for a third straight year, and the working-age population—people aged from 15 to 64—has fallen below 80 million for the first time in 32 years.
The aging of society brings with it ballooning social security costs, including expenditures for medical and nursing care. As a result, the burden of maintaining the social security system has grown even heavier on a working generation that is shrinking in an alarming fashion.
Japan’s social security system, as it exists today, is hardly sustainable and threatens to undermine Japan’s social and economic vigor. The situation is grave indeed.
In 2025, as the baby-boom generation passes the age of 75, the number of people needing medical and nursing care will undoubtedly rise even higher.
But as the number of older people continues to swell, there are limits to the number of elderly that can be cared for at facilities for the aged and hospitals. Expenditures covered by the nursing care and health insurance systems are likely to increase, leading to a further rise in benefit payments.
The situation calls for arrangements for integrated nursing care and medical services to be provided in the home, allowing the elderly to live at home for as long as reasonably practical. The government must also back construction of new housing to accommodate older people, including those with lower incomes.
Build mutual aid framework
It is important that Japan also define a strategy for addressing the increasing numbers of older people living alone. According to projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the number of such elderly people, which stood at 4.98 million in 2010, will rise to 7.62 million in 2035, an increase of about 50 percent.
Older people who receive no help from family are likely to face great difficulty living on their own if and when they encounter even minor physical or mental issues. Symptoms of dementia and other disorders also tend to be overlooked. Building neighborhood frameworks of mutual support to take the place of absent families is indispensable in coping with this situation.
Many noteworthy programs to keep an eye on elderly residents and provide them with places to interact with other people have been launched by nonprofit organizations and volunteers. We should encourage the further spread of such works.
The role played by local governments is crucial as well. One program by the government of Minato Ward, Tokyo, makes door-to-door visits to the homes of single elderly residents to offer appropriate administrative services, in an effort to better understand their living conditions. This program could be a useful model for other local governments.
We hope to see older people who are in good health and spirits take on volunteer and other activities for the benefit of their communities. Such contributions will add meaning to their lives, and at the same time reduce the likelihood that they will need nursing care services, thereby helping rein in social welfare expenditures for the nation as a whole.
There is a close link between the number of older people living alone and the increasing number of unmarried people. Many people within the growing ranks of low-wage nonregular employees are giving up on getting married.
This is why employment patterns are an important part of preventing further growth in the number of older people living alone—working conditions for nonregular workers should be improved and companies must be urged to expedite promotion of such workers to regular-employee status.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 18, 2014)
The Yomiuri Shimbun 7:05 pm, April 17, 2014
Utilities’ deteriorating financial state a key issue for entire energy policy
The financial circumstances of electricity utilities continue to deteriorate, chiefly due to delays in restarting their nuclear power plants.
There are also growing concerns over the adverse impact of electricity rate hikes on general households and the industrial sector.
Chubu Electric Power Co. is planning an average increase of 3.8 percent from May. The company had initially sought a 5 percent hike but lowered its request after being asked by the government to take measures such as cutting down fuel costs.
Chubu Electric Power is the seventh utility firm to make a “drastic” hike in its electricity rates, which requires government approval. Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. have done the same.
Following the outbreak of the crisis at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, all nuclear power plants have been suspended, causing utility companies’ fuel costs to soar after they switched to thermal power plants. As a result, the utilities have been under strain financially.
Of the nation’s 10 utilities, six companies, including Chubu Electric, are expected to post a recurring loss for the business year ending in March. Five out of the six electricity providers are projected to post a recurring loss for a third straight year, a financial situation that may prompt banks to cut off their loans.
It was necessary to a certain extent for the government to have approved the power companies’ rate hike requests while calling on them to make thorough efforts to streamline themselves.
But it is quite serious that the utility companies are about to enter a second round of rate increases.
Hokkaido Electric Power Co., which implemented a 7 percent to 8 percent increase in the utility rate last September, announced its plan in February to implement yet another hike. The company said it has been unable to restart its nuclear power plant as it had hoped, leaving it unable to improve its business performance.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has in effect put a hold on Hokkaido Electric’s rate hike, saying, “It’s important [for the company] to make efforts to avoid a rate hike.”
The government’s reluctance to approve the rate hikes while delaying the restart of nuclear power plants only serves to further aggravate power companies’ financial situation.
To avoid becoming insolvent with cumulative deficit, Hokkaido Electric has reportedly been studying the possibility of receiving financial support from the Development Bank of Japan. We recognize the value of the utility’s efforts to avoid a rate hike, but they are merely last-ditch measures.
The financial state of other utility companies, besides Hokkaido Electric, is also deteriorating. Shortage of funds will leave utility companies unable to make necessary repairs of their power transmission lines and transformer stations, or to inject sufficient money into the renewal of these facilities, adversely affecting power supply. Such a situation must be avoided at all costs.
With these factors in mind, it is essential for power companies to be allowed to restart nuclear power plants that have been confirmed to be safe, so their costs for generating electricity can be reduced.
The most important points are for the Nuclear Regulation Authority to accelerate its safety inspections of nuclear power plants and for the government to extend solid support to the power plants that pass those inspections, so restarting operations can proceed smoothly.
It is also necessary for the central government to make an all-out effort to explain the situation, to win the support of local governments that host nuclear power plants.
Japan’s economic reconstruction depends on a stable supply of cheap electricity. The time has come for both the public and private sectors to seriously reflect on power companies’ deteriorating financial circumstances, and the challenges posed for the overall energy policy of this country.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2014)
April 16, 2014
EDITORIAL: Abe administration's disturbing signs of 'Galapagos' syndrome
In his recent address to newly hired government employees, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exhorted them to broaden their horizons, saying, “In this age of globalization, Galapagos officials who only know about Japan are worthless.”
That’s well said. But coming from the mouth of this leader, the words sound somewhat hollow. A number of irresponsible remarks recently made by some administration officials and close Abe aides have triggered concerns about the government’s field of vision. We cannot help but wonder if the vision is limited to an area far narrower than Japan: to things that are only convenient to the administration.
For instance, Hakubun Shimomura, the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, said in a Diet session on March 26 that the so-called Murayama statement was not officially endorsed by a Cabinet decision. The statement was released in 1995 by Tomiichi Murayama, the prime minister at the time, expressing remorse and apologizing for Japan's wartime actions. Shimomura later corrected his comment, saying he had committed “a mistake of fact.”
It is startling that the education minister, a man known as a passionate advocate of teaching “correct history,” was so wrong about such a basic fact. The statement was indeed officially approved by a Cabinet decision.
When he was asked about the government’s definition of the right to collective self-defense during a Diet session on March 20, Ichiro Komatsu, director-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, adamantly refused to respond, saying he didn’t want to give a wrong answer. “It would be very bad if I answer the question carelessly and am then criticized for correcting my statement later,” he said.
Seiichi Eto, a special adviser to Abe, indignantly reacted to a U.S. statement expressing disappointment at Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine last December with a post on a video-sharing site in which he said, “We are disappointed at the United States for saying it was disappointed.”
Yoshitaka Sakurada, a senior vice minister at the education ministry, attended a rally where people were calling for a revision of the 1993 statement issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologizing to the women who were forced to provide sex to wartime Japanese troops. At the meeting, Sakurada supported the call for revising the statement, saying: “I am a person who abhors the fabrication of facts. My feelings and thoughts are the same as yours.”
Similar remarks were also made by a top executive of Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK).
Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga have downplayed the implications of the various utterances by saying they were only “personal opinions.” But that doesn’t dilute the fallout from these controversial remarks.
The various comments by people close to Abe have alarmed the international community and fueled suspicions that these “personal opinions” actually reflect the prime minister’s true views and feelings. The situation is clearly damaging Japan’s national interests, the importance of which Abe likes to stress.
Abe himself is responsible for the situation since his visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine triggered the controversial comments expressing “personal opinions.” Abe went “in a private capacity,” even though many people around him urged him not to go.
Abe’s renewed passion for pursuing a political agenda for the nation’s “departure from the postwar regime” has inspired his aides to join his crusade. As a result, it seems that they have lost their ability to make sensible judgments, causing the entire administration to lose its balance.
What is especially disturbing is that the individuals who have made these questionable remarks don’t seem to have an inkling of what made their remarks so controversial.
This is clear from a comment written by a secretary to Eto, a special adviser to Abe, in Eto’s blog. “Although Eto made the statement with pride for himself and his country, he has retracted it to avoid causing trouble to the Abe administration, which is pursuing such important causes as making an amendment to the Constitution.”
These officials have not offered any explanation about why and how their remarks were problematic. Nor have they taken responsibility for the controversies they provoked. Nor has the administration tried to hold them responsible for their questionable comments. This indulgent atmosphere appears to be breeding self-righteousness among administration officials and enhancing purely collusive relations among people around Abe.
We are deeply concerned about growing signs of the Galapagos syndrome coming from the Abe administration.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 10