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.

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