A way to bridge aging societies in Japan and South Korea

aging japan Two elderly women chat at a park in Kyoto, Japan.

Japan and South Korea face serious demographic crises. Japan has the oldest population in the world and South Korea is one of the most rapidly aging. Together they top the list in terms of proportion of elderly by 2050, with 40.1% and 35.9% respectively being 65 and over, according to a U.S. Census Bureau forecast. Both nations are seeing shrinking working-age populations, with their birthrates among the lowest in the world. This puts them at great risk as they struggle to find new engines of economic growth.

Some experts argue that Japan and South Korea should encourage immigration. The former head of Tokyo's Immigration Bureau, Hidenori Sakanaka, said that "we need an immigration revolution to bring in 10 million people in the next 50 years, otherwise the Japanese economy will collapse." Jongryn Mo, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul has written a book, "Strong Immigration Nation," urging a similar policy for South Korea.

Is migration the answer?

Japan and South Korea are already supplementing their shrinking workforce with foreign labor, mostly unskilled migrant workers from China and Southeast Asia doing jobs that locals shun.

But it is time to attract more skilled workers. In Japan, only 18.4% of foreign workers were technicians or professionals in 2015, while the figure in Korea is just 7.8% this year. Skilled foreign workers can fill many jobs from staffing hospitals to working as technicians in middle-tier companies and software engineers in large ones.

The challenge, however, is that both countries remain exclusionary, closed societies despite a substantial rise in the numbers of foreigners. Politicians fear losing votes from workers worried about foreigners taking their jobs.

According to a recent report by the French business school INSEAD, Japan and South Korea are ranked 53rd and 61st, respectively in their level of tolerance for immigrants. Most foreign skilled workers have little intention to settle down in Japan or South Korea on a permanent basis, although unskilled ones might be more willing to stay.

Maria, a Guatemalan professional, decided to leave South Korea after working for six years in the overseas marketing department of a large Korean corporation. "Some Koreans complain that foreigners leave after a few years, but we leave because we're never included in the first place. Korean companies pay a lot to bring foreigners here. And then they don't even ask these people about their opinion."

Srey, a Cambodian student studying in Japan, said, "The Japanese are very helpful and very friendly, but at the same time they look at me as a 'gaijin' no matter how good I am at Japanese or able to speak to them. I am not planning to work in Japan."

Bridging strategy

South Korea and Japan need to find a more creative strategy in utilizing foreign talent. In particular, they should pay close attention to their transnational networks rather than pushing for permanent migration. Not only should both countries focus on the knowledge and skills of foreign labor talent, but also the social networks they can possess.

This calls for a particular type of social capital: transnational bridging. A person who has social ties in more than one place can serve as a bridge between those different places. Such bridging can be performed within a city or a country or across borders, but the latter is becoming more important with globalization. By bridging distant networks, people can connect disparate cultures, build trust and facilitate cross-national cooperation that are essential in business transactions. Many Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs and engineers working in Silicon Valley are active in transnational bridging with their home country.

Transnational bridging can be a good new strategy for South Korea and Japan in attracting foreign skilled labor since they can offer valuable experiences and networks as advanced economies, if not permanent places to live. They can help foreign talent to build social ties while studying and working and encourage them to serve as a bridge between South Korea and Japan and their next destination once they leave in what could be called "brain linkage."

They can still contribute to South Korea or Japan even after they depart. Maria said she was willing to do business involving both South Korea and her home country. Srey is also eager to do business with Japan after graduating, even though he will not work in the country.

South Korea and Japan should adopt a policy of "Study-Work-Bridge" rather than the "Study-Work-Migration" pathway commonly encouraged by settler societies. This new policy framework would establish programs providing systematic networking opportunities for skilled foreigners while in Japan or South Korea. It would upgrade the quality of campus life for foreign students and work environments for foreign professionals so they leave with positive experiences.

Most importantly, it would provide institutional support to help maintain transnational networks between foreigners and South Koreans and Japanese.

In Japan, a Study-Work framework has already begun to take shape. Among foreign students seeking employment in Japan in 2013, approximately 24% found jobs. According to the country's ministry of justice, 10,696 of 11,698 foreign students are successful in applying for a change of visa status after graduating from college. This is very encouraging. Still, foreign students feel that Japanese companies are reluctant to embrace their full potential and largely expect them to assimilate, often leading them to stay in Japan only for a short time.

In South Korea, with a shorter history of foreign student intake, a Study-Work framework has yet to emerge. While 64.3% of South Korean companies say they need and want to hire foreign students, only a very small portion of foreign students work in South Korean companies after graduation, perhaps as low as 1%. South Korea's immigration laws for foreign students have eased slightly in recent years, but there is an urgent need to develop solid, institutionalized support for responding to the substantial demand by foreign students who wish to find employment after their studies.

Challenges ahead

Both countries are moving in the right direction, but until they are ready to embrace a more comprehensive migration policy down the road, they should develop the "bridging" component of a Study-Work-Bridge framework as an interim strategy. That means considering how foreign skilled labor can contribute to their economies even if they stay only temporarily.

This non-migration-bridging concept can be also appealing to foreign workers who like to move on after gaining valuable experiences and networks. By activating the social networks they have left behind, foreigners can later become powerful "transnational bridges." With economic globalization, such linkages will be all the more important.

Research shows that science and engineering majors may have more to contribute as human capital, but business and social science majors are more inclined to play a bridging role. Universities and corporations should establish diversity offices, as seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, to promote a culture of tolerance and non-discrimination.

The challenges associated with aging, depopulation and a shrinking workforce are expected to intensify in the coming years. Yet foreign talent is readily at hand for both countries. They need to look no further than the skilled foreigners who already have connections with South Korea or Japan either through schooling or employment and to continue to cultivate such connections through a Study-Work-Bridge approach.

Gi-Wook Shin is director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University and co-author of Global Talent: Skilled Labor as Social Capital in Korea. Rennie J. Moon is an associate professor at the Underwood International College at Yonsei University in Seoul.

This article was originally carried by Nikkei Asian Review on Aug. 31 and reposted with permission.