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The labor ministry plans to strengthen support for foreign workers of Japanese ancestry to help them find jobs and better settle in the country, ministry officials said Monday.

The ministry plans to put seven support centers across the country under its direct control and have them work closely with government-run employment security offices, the officials said.

The reorganization will probably kick off in April, they said.

Japan is expected to face labor shortages as its population rapidly ages and the birthrate declines. The government thus believes foreign workers hold the key to alleviating the shortfall.

The number of foreign workers of Japanese ancestry, including those from Brazil, has grown steadily over the past decade as they received preferential treatment under immigration rules.

About 230,000 workers, or one-third of the total number of foreign workers who lived in Japan in 2000, are estimated to be of Japanese descent, according to government officials.

Many are engaged in manufacturing work in the northern Kanto region and Shizuoka Prefecture.

An immediate problem, however, is that with the continuing economic slump, an increasing number of manufacturers are shifting their production bases to China and other regions where labor costs are much cheaper, and hence many foreign workers here are losing their jobs.

The situation is particularly tough for younger workers, because their links to Japan are not as solid as their parents. , who may have some knowledge of the language and way of life here.

In the early 1990s, many foreign workers came to Japan on a temporary basis and returned to their homeland after earning money here. But in recent years, most have tended to settle down with their families over the longer term.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry hopes that by putting the seven support centers under its direct control, it will to provide better help to foreign workers of Japanese ancestry.

The centers are in Tokyo and Tochigi, Gunma, Chiba, Shizuoka, Aichi and Osaka prefectures. In addition to providing job-placement support, they are expected to offer counseling on social security programs, language and cultural gaps, the officials said.

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