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The government should consider opening the country to foreign unskilled labor and work to create public support for the issue, an advisory body to the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

While written in veiled language, the report by the Council on the Movement of People across Borders is seen as a de facto call for the nation to partially open up certain sectors to foreign workers.

The report was presented to Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura.

“There are many obstacles to overcome (before this can happen), and it is not an issue that will progress in the span of a day,” the council’s chairman, Kazuo Kumagai, said. “But we need to look squarely at the role that foreign laborers are actually playing in Japanese society.”

The panel is believed to have refrained from making an outright recommendation to accept unskilled workers due to concern over deteriorating employment conditions and growing fears over crimes committed by foreigners.

Tuesday’s report calls for debate on ways to accept unskilled workers “to a certain degree and in an orderly manner” for each field, while recommending that the government try to achieve a national consensus to deal with the issue over the long term.

The government currently issues permits for foreigners to work in 16 specialized and technical fields, which include investment and management, education and entertainment, but rejects those who do not fall into the designated categories.

But according to 2002 statistics, roughly three out of every four foreign workers were employed for basic labor. Most are either of Japanese ancestry allowed to engage in any kind of work or are illegal immigrants.

Business circles have called for the acceptance of foreign unskilled workers to make up for labor shortages, particularly in labor-intensive jobs that Japanese tend to avoid.

Kumagai, who serves as a senior adviser to Hitachi Ltd., told a news conference that the panel had wanted to make the report’s wording clearer. “However, we had to stop at raising the issue,” he said.

In line with the panel’s report, the Foreign Ministry is expected to bring other government ministries and agencies to the table to discuss the issue.

Other Asian nations in particular are strong advocates of Tokyo opening up its labor market to unskilled foreigners; the issue is one that Japan cannot skirt if it wants to be a regional leader and forge relationships such as free-trade agreements with these nations.

In Tuesday’s report, the panel took note of a 1999 Cabinet decision calling for active use of skilled foreigners but a “cautious stance” when discussing foreign unskilled labor.

“Even if the traditional policy is to be maintained, sufficient debate is needed based on analysis of the current situation and the needs of society,” the report says.

On other issues, the advisory panel recommended that the government consider improving the employment, living, social security and education conditions for foreign residents.

The panel said the government should work on accepting more specialized and technical laborers from abroad.

It also urged the Foreign Ministry to step up its consular services and reinforce safety measures and crisis management for Japanese abroad.

According to the ministry, some 600,000 foreigners are believed to be working as unskilled laborers in Japan.

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