A group of Mongolian students and foreign workers.

Japan needs immigrants, but do immigrants need Japan?

Updated 0123 GMT (0923 HKT) December 8, 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.