A Justice Ministry panel discussing long-term policies for accepting overseas workers said Friday the government should seek out those with special skills and expertise to cope with the shrinking labor force in Japan.

“The debate on whether to allow foreigners to enter the country and work here is over. The question now is how we should receive them,” Senior Vice Justice Minister Taro Kono said at a news conference.

The proposal by the panel headed by Kono also claimed that reducing the number of illegal foreign residents will help the country regain its reputation as “the safest country in the world,” ultimately creating an environment where legal foreign workers can become a part of society.

As suggested in the panel’s interim report released in May, the panel said foreigners who want to work in Japan, including those of Japanese descent, must have a certain degree of proficiency in the Japanese language to be granted legal status.

Kono called the government’s current policy of granting preferential treatment to people of Japanese descent a “mistake” and said the policy must be reconsidered.

“Many children of those ethnic Japanese who do not speak (the language) are dropping out of school, which must be stopped,” he said, adding that the lack of language ability is becoming a major problem for foreign workers.

“The government must take responsibility for building a system to teach Japanese to them,” Kono said.

The panel was set up in December to discuss new regulations for accepting foreign workers into the country. Japan’s foreign population is expected to grow as the country ages and fewer young people enter the workforce.

The panel sparked controversy in the May interim report by saying the ratio of foreign residents to the total population should not exceed 3 percent. The final version made no reference to how many foreign workers should be allowed in, saying only that number of foreigners should not exceed a certain percentage of the total population because it would create confusion that the government could not cope with.

“We decided not to mention the percentage this time, because the number itself captured so much attention last time,” Kono said.

Foreign nationals are currently estimated by the Justice Ministry to account for 1.2 percent of the country’s population.

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