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A Justice Ministry panel discussing long-term policies for accepting foreigners in Japan proposed Tuesday that the government in principle require that foreign workers have a certain level of Japanese proficiency.

The language requirement should also apply to foreign nationals of Japanese descent who come to Japan on a special visa, it said in an interim package of proposals.

The panel said people who already have the Japanese ancestry visa should also be subject to the language requirement after a certain period of time. Although basic work visas are issued for specific jobs that requires particular qualifications, the ancestry visa permits engaging in any type of work, including manual labor.

“The idea is that Japan should not try to bring in foreign workers just as cheap labor,” Vice Justice Minister Taro Kono, who heads the team, told a news conference. “If they are to come and work in Japan, they should at least fulfill conditions that allow them to well fit into society.”

The suggestions have yet to be discussed with other relevant ministries, and Justice officials said they will only serve as a “starting point” for debate on the issue.

While the team’s basic idea is to get Japan to accept more foreign nationals, it also said the ratio of foreign residents to the total population should not exceed 3 percent. Kono said he believes a huge and sudden influx of foreigners would only result in confusion and something Japan would not be able to handle.

Foreign nationals currently account for 1.2 percent of the total population, Kono said.

“The government opened its doors to people of Japanese descent in 1989 just because there was a strong demand from companies (for labor) during the bubble economy,” he said.

But the country was not sufficiently prepared to accept such people, he added, citing the case of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where many Brazilian of Japanese descent now reside.

Many are not covered by the social security system because of their unstable employment situation, while their children refuse to go to school due to the language barrier, he said.

The ministry team was set up in December to discuss how to accept foreign workers in view of the expected labor shortage stemming from the dwindling birthrate. Its proposals will soon be posted on the ministry’s Web site to elicit opinions from the public, according to ministry officials.

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