‘Skilled foreigner’ invite too rigid a bar

More flexibility, and opportunity, said key to bringing in the talented

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

More than a year after its much-hyped introduction, a government-led initiative to lure “highly skilled” foreign professionals to Japan is making lackluster progress, with the number of those applying for visas under the new system much smaller than initially envisioned.

Dismayed by the poor performance, the government is now eyeing a review of the system in the near future, and may lower hurdles to qualification while tweaking the benefits. The Justice Ministry says the changes will hopefully take effect by the end of this year.

But some experts say that only by a more fundamental overhaul will the program truly become attractive for foreigners worldwide, arguing its perks need to go beyond simply relaxing immigration rules for the eligible.

The program kicked off in May last year under which those regarded by the government as highly skilled professionals can gain access to a batch of preferential visa perks. People considered “highly skilled” include researchers, university professors, doctors, business managers and engineers.

Many saw this as Japan’s belated effort to cope with its rapidly atrophying labor force and low birthrate. The threat of a demographic crisis looms large in the nation, as the total population is estimated to plummet to about 90 million by 2050 from the current 127 million.

The system calculates how many “points” each foreign professional is worth based on criteria that include their annual income, academic background and career history.

Those who earn 70 points or more qualify for a string of incentives that ease some of their visa restrictions. Examples include speedier qualification for permanent residency, permission for spouses to also find work, and rights to bring along their parents and housekeepers.

Despite the original target of 2,000 registrants per year, the program had lured just 434 people as of April 6, according to the latest data, including a mere 17 who applied to the program from overseas and used the points-based system to enter the country.

Of the total, Chinese accounted for an overwhelming 57 percent, followed by Americans at 7 percent and Indians at 4 percent.

Such points-based systems are being employed overseas as well, especially in pro-immigration nations like the United Kingdom and Canada, albeit with different details in content.

Compared with other nations’ systems, experts say the Japanese version sets the bar too high in terms of eligibility requirements for applicants. The conditions for annual income and educational background in particular are so demanding that they virtually eliminate any chance foreign students in Japan are able to qualify.

Yuriko Sato, associate professor of the International Student Center at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said Japan could learn a lot from Australia and its version of the system.

Overseas students there with certain qualifications, such as completion of at least two years of course studies, go through a designated points test. Once deemed eligible, foreign students can obtain permanent residency while also enjoying a slew of other benefits, including discounted health care and access to certain social security payouts.

Among items subject to scrutiny are English proficiency, age and work history. Annual income is not a condition of eligibility.

The Japanese version’s penchant for focusing on annual earnings and academic accomplishments clearly signals the government’s intention to only accept individuals who are already “established,” Sato said. Researchers, for example, may be awarded an extra 15 points if they have published three papers in the nation’s well-known scholarly journals.

Sato believes this kind of utter indifference to young hopefuls makes the Japanese system “severely flawed.”

“Generally speaking, overseas students in Japan are fluent in Japanese, and versed in our culture. So they’re likely to show greater adaptability to Japan’s arguably very peculiar corporate climate,” Sato said, noting their turnover rate would also be lower.

A government panel led by the Justice Ministry from April to May discussed how to revise the program, including the possibility of sweeping changes to the lineup of perks.

Ideas that emerged included offering eligible foreigners income tax cuts, addressing their criticisms of Japan’s seniority-based corporate society, and improving laboratory environments for researchers, according to Immigration Bureau official Yusuke Takeuchi.

None of these dramatic reforms, however, got the green light, he said, as such measures would have necessitated financial commitment. Easing immigration rules, on the other hand, wouldn’t cost the government a dime.

The panel, however, did acknowledge the importance of “doing more than just giving the eligible (candidates) preferential visa treatments” in order to truly attract those coveted individuals, but stopped short of fleshing out details.

Specifics agreed upon at the time included making minor improvements to the perks. Under the current framework, eligible foreigners would only have to stay a minimum of five years to apply for permanent residency, compared with the usual 10. This qualification period would be shortened to three years.

Requirements for researchers and professors might also become looser. More “bonus points” would be given to their academic achievements, a change the panel hopes will offset the disadvantage of their relatively lower annual incomes.

In response to criticism that the nation’s point system places too much emphasis on income levels, the Immigration Bureau’s Takeuchi said the government views it as “an objective barometer of how competent one is.”

But since there were cases where lower earnings disqualified researchers with otherwise impeccable backgrounds, the government “needs to review the way it sets annual income requirements,” he added.

Despite this, the crux of the program’s scant success to date has been the perceived lack of incentives on the part of Japanese firms to hire foreign nationals in the first place, according to Susumu Ishihara, president of the Japan Immigrant Information Agency.

The same kind of insularity mirrors Japanese universities, whose boards of directors rarely include foreigners, Ishihara noted.

Many top politicians also appear to believe allowing an influx of skilled foreigners would rob Japanese of job opportunities, he said.

Ishihara believes the points-based system, which he once celebrated as “an unprecedented sign of Japan opening its gates to foreigners” is pretty much the best the nation can do — for now.

  • Masa Chekov

    The stupid thing about the system, and the incentive of the reduced time for application for permanent residency, is that the new clock starts from the time you get the “skilled” status.

    So if you have been in Japan for 4 years and wish to get this new status, you will still have to wait an additional 5 years to apply for PR – your previous 4 years don’t count. What’s the point???

    • pixelcort

      Agreed, however don’t forget that 4+5=9, which is still less than the normal 10 years required otherwise.

      • Masa Chekov

        Sure, but it’d make much more sense to include time already spent working in the country.

  • WithMalice

    “Many top politicians also appear to believe allowing an influx of skilled foreigners would rob Japanese of job opportunities…”

    This alone means it’s probably a good idea in the first place.

    • Nancy Foster

      Isn’t Japan supposed to end up being depopulated in 2002 years anyways? The foreigners won’t have to worry about taking away jobs from Japanese if someday there won’t be any left!

    • msupp

      This is the attitude which will lead Japan into disaster. It still hasn’t sunk in that SOMETHING must be done about the demographic crisis, and asking locals to have more babies isn’tgoing to cut it.

      In effect Japan has the choice of opening its doors to immigration to solve the population dillema (like the West has done for quite some time now), or continue to muddle through this deflatuonary mess towards imminent disaster.

      • WithMalice

        Err… you miss my point.
        I’m alluding that the fact that “top (Japanese) politicians think it’s a bad idea”, means that it’s probably a GOOD IDEA!

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    “Many saw this as Japan’s belated effort to cope with its rapidly atrophying labor force and low birthrate.”

    Highly-skilled and highly educated people tend to have fewer (if any) babies than any other segment of the population. If you want a population hike, don’t be looking at the educated.

    As for atrophy, why do you suppose that has happened? For the same reason people are not having kids: because the benefits are not worth the constraints and responsibilities. They are not worth it because the state has rigged the game with crushing social and cultural roles and concomitant taxes and regulations.

    Living as a single person on a freeter salary is a rational course of action for many youth under Japan’s current economic and social conditions. Limp-wristed tinkering with immigration laws will solve none of this.

    • Mark

      Yes these are all half measures which fail to adress the probblem. A foreigner like myself workng 8-5 will find a 7-11 abismal!

      As a young and talented engineer (UK), I could, in theory, aplly for this scheme. I absolutely love Japan. The sights, the culture and it’s people. This is why I go there on holiday rather than getting shit-faced in Ibiza.

      Now I understand the resistance to a truckload immigration. I have seen first hand the effects of allowing hordes of uncivilised 3rd worlders in by the container load just to keep up the numbers.

      However there are many unemployed Europeans, Britons and North Americans who are HIGHLY qualified, enthralled with J culture and who would give anything to go to live in Japan. These are 1st worlders who will likely respect observe and partake in ….most customs. (Onsen, never again unless it’s with 20 hot girls)
      The reason I don’t go it’s because, for a lower wage and longer hours I will not get to experience Japan outside of the office, let alone find a Jap girl and make some needed kids.

      This is as true to me as it is for the Japanese themseves.

      Wan’t to save Japan? adapt.

  • Komakai Okane

    There are no websites mentioned in the article – how can I learn the specifics of this opportunity? Would the author or a reader please share the link. Thanks.

  • Nancy Foster

    I find it shortsighted they base the “value” of a highly sought after skilled professional by a randomly chosen annual income. A family doctor in the US earns 150,000 USD a year, a specialist family doctor doing the exact same job in Mexico will probably earn only 30,000 USD a year.

    On that logic alone the doctor earning more money living in a more expensive country is somehow more talented than the other guy. No wonder only 17 applicants in foreign soil applied to the program, almost all highly skilled professionals that actually speak Japanese don’t earn enough dough to qualify.

    • Mark

      Yes these are all half measures which fail to adress the probblem. A foreigner like myself workng 8-5 will find a 7-11 abismal!
      As a young and talented engineer (UK), I could, in theory, aplly for this scheme. I absolutely love Japan. The sights, the culture and it’s people. This is why I go there on holiday rather than getting sht-faced in Ibiza.

      Now I understand the resistance to a truckload immigration. I have seen first hand the effects of allowing hordes of uncivilised 3rdworlders in by the container load just to keep up the numbers.

      However there are many unemployed Europeans, Britons and North Americans who are HIGHLY qualified, enthralled with J culture and who would give anything to go to live in Japan. These are 1stworlders who will likely respect observe and partake in ….most customs. (Onsen, never again unless it’s with 20 hot girls)
      The reason I don’t go it’s because, for a lower wage and longer hours I will not get to experience Japan outside of the office, let alone find a Jap girl and make some needed kids.

      This is as true to me as it is for the Japanese themseves.

      Wan’t to save Japan? adapt.

  • OlivierAM71

    Very interesting article!
    Let me add that one huge obstacle for highly skilled workers (especially researchers) who would love to work and live in Japan, is the difficulty to learn Japanese language, while already struggling with time to be efficient at work.
    Some Japanese courses should be designed specifically for those workers, and sustained by the government. These classes should focus, for example, on the vocabulary needed to perform the job. I remember, when I was trying to learn Japanese while teaching at University, that the gap between the japanese language I was learning and the Japanese language needed to do my job was so wide, it was really disheartening. But I love Japan and Japanese culture, and would love to be able to settle down in Japan for good!

  • Brent

    Me and my family have already stayed in Japan for more than 4 years, and I just recently found out about the point based immigration system and tried to calculate my chances so that my wife can work full time as an English teacher, She’s now a part time teacher. I got 65 points and was very frustrated that the criteria is too strict. I decided to apply for a job in Singapore and now, we will be leaving Japan in a few weeks. I hope they can do something about it so that others will have a better chance on getting this type of visa.

    • Setsuho

      I am surprised to hear that many foreigners have problems to get a visa. I got the Japanese citizenship in less than a year. It was several years ago. Before that I have lived in Japan for some years on as a visiting scholar. Therefore, at least for me there was no need for permanent residency. And it is a liberating experience that I need never to return to my country of birth.

      • Franz Pichler

        The ones that aren’t granted visas are probably not needed in japan, as simple as that, stop moaning all ten time, get an education, get skills, get and you’ll get into japan, otherwise stop complaining because get real, an English teacher is a good and respectable job but so is are window cleaners etc but those are not. HIGHLY skilled jobs, skilled yes, but not highly and not in terrible demand to advance Japan’s economy, so I repeat, stop complaining about japanese immigration policy, if you can’t get a visa, they don’t want you as simple as that.

  • itoshima2012

    The number is lower because there are not that Manu HIGHLY skilled people in this world! You can lower the bar and let in thousands of people but they’ll not be highly skilled, so what’s the point?! Japan should stick to this system

    • Umbra

      I think you meant to say: “The number is lower because there are not that Manu HIGHLY skilled people in this world that want to live in Japan.”

      Personally I think that the system favors seniority (even though they try to account for it by lowering points with increased age) and therefore you can’t expect the birthrates to rise.

      • Franz Pichler

        No, I think it’s correct to state that not many people are highly skilled, it’s a fact, why should japan let in people that are not skilled? What’s the point? Just to add up numbers? Look at Europe, they don’t have a demographic crisis because they’re letting in (willingly or not) everybody, with all the negative effects on housing, schools, health and social welfare. Sweden is a good example, even the minister for immigration said that it’s not sustainable anymore. You can’t let in everybody if you can’t deliver! Japan is open for highly skilled people, an English teacher is not highly skilled, gimme a break! Everybody with a bit of brain can do that

      • Mark

        Design Engineer , 25, Highly Skilled…..but, Japanese office work culture is mental, unrewarding and unapreciated. I will be in a cubicle stuck as the gaijin that never gets promotion. WhyTF would I swap for that? Sure Japan is great, I’ve been this year and I will go the next, but they need a rethink on their entire view of life.

        Work to live
        Live to work