Immigration is not the problem, it’s the solution

or at least it’s part of the solution

Only 30% of Americans hold a valid passport, and for the few of us who do put our passports to use, we’re mostly on vacation. Very few of us elect to live abroad. This is a pity, because there’s no better way to appreciate the plight and value of immigrants than by living abroad yourself, with all the linguistic and cultural challenges.

I currently reside in Tokyo, Japan. You know, that proud country the once had the second largest economy in the world? Back in 1990, Japan was poised to knock the USA off the number-one spot. But for the last 20 years, Japan has been stagnation nation.

Today, Japan has slipped to number three, behind China, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Japan soon fell a few rungs lower, dropping behind South Korea and other emerging countries in Asia.But Japan is not going away too easily; they intend to get back their swagger.

You’ve read the news. It’s Abe-nomoics to the rescue, right? Japan just needs a few thing: a stronger yen, an end to deflation, adjust the 200% debt to GDP ratio, gently raise interest rates, and grow this baby back into shape!

But none of these wonky proposals will actually turn the ship around. Japan must make deeper, more personal changes, and a complete shake up of business habits. People must take more risks, and support innovators who are willing to stick out their necks. However, this profile does not sound like the typical Japanese employee. So who can help make these bold moves? Immigrants. Not just any immigrants, preferential immigrants.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, the Japanese government recently set out to rectify this problem by encouraging more preferential foreigners to become permanent residents. In 2012 the new permanent resident point system was rolled out to attract up to 2,000 highly skilled immigrants. The points are based upon academic and business success as well as the potential to help boost the sluggish Japanese economy.The hope is that these people, once infused into the fabric of Japanese business, will seed new fields of growth.

Japan has long been notoriously stingy about granting permanent visas to immigrants. But twenty years in the doldrums has changed perspectives in this rather insular culture. Government and business officials know they need help from outsiders. Specifically they want MBA types who’ve worked in mergers and acquisitions, and in investment banking, as well as scientific researchers, software innovators and, most of all, the risk-taking visionaries who know a thing or two about start-ups: a dash of that Silicon Valley spirit in Akasaka, if you please.

Hence the bold shift to opening up the permanent visa process. Well, how did it go after the first round? The figures have just been announced this summer. Sadly only seventeen people took the bait and jumped aboard. That’s it, just seventeen people, or about as many gaijin sitting at my local Starbucks sipping iced lattes and surfing the Internet.

So, it’s back to the drawing board. The government quickly announced that they would further ease the point requirements and hope the next round will attract more qualified applicants. Hmm. Think this will really bump the numbers? This tinkering with the application system just reflects the nature of the problem itself. The very people trying to attract risk-taker are themselves risk-adverse. They think if they open the door a crack wider suddenly dynamic innovators will step right in. They need a grander vision. They need to sweeten the pot. How about offering season tickets to the Yomiuri Giants, or to the upcoming Sumo matches, or better yet, a reserved seat on a commuter train during rush hours? Show a little imagination, and take some risks!

The USA has just the opposite immigration situation, as there are currently over 150,000 scientists and engineers wait-listed for Green Cards (over 2,000 of whom happen to be from Japan). Compare that to the 17 immigrants ready to go to bat for Japan.

It’s easy to see the competitive advantage the USA has over Japan, and every other country on earth for that matter, with our immigration situation. Sometimes you don’t even know who your preferential immigrants are. Sergey Brin’s family chose to immigrate to the USA from Russia back in 1979, when he was six years old. From this we got google. Americans should relish the problem of how to handle our 11 million undocumented workers, not fret about them and score ugly political points at their expense.

If the USA stays on top of the economic heap, you can be sure that it will be in part because of our immigrants.Personally, I’m on a three-year work visa here in Tokyo, so my contribution to rebooting this society will be quite limited.