Abe calls for foreign employment review to bring in skilled workers from overseas

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

In a bid to address the nation’s acute labor shortages, the government aims to draw up a plan by summer to reform the immigration system in order to allow in more professional and skilled foreign workers, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Council of Economic Fiscal Policy on Tuesday.

“The prerequisite is that there will be a limit to the duration of stay and family members will basically not be allowed to accompany the workers. Under these conditions, we’d like to conduct (feasibility) studies to show the outline of a new policy by summer,” Abe told the 11-member panel, which includes key Cabinet ministers and the head of Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business lobby group.

Asked for more details during a news conference later in the day, economic and fiscal policy minister Toshimitsu Motegi pointed out several industrial sectors that will be scrutinized and targeted by the government for possible inclusion in the initiative. These included nursing services as well as construction, transportation, retail and agricultural sectors, which are all facing acute labor shortages.

Currently Japan has 11 visa categories for professional and skilled workers, including professors, business managers, legal and accounting services, medical services, researchers, instructors, engineers and skilled laborers such as chefs.

At present, foreign nationals with those working visas are basically allowed to reside in Japan with their spouses and children but not other relatives, according to the Justice Ministry. The duration of stay can be extended if the authorities find no problems.

Under Abe’s instruction, however, the Justice Ministry will consider easing conditions or expanding the visa categories. The new visa categories will not allow the holders to bring family members and the duration of stay will be decided in advance, with no extensions, a Justice Ministry official in charge of the reform issue told The Japan Times on Wednesday.

Other details of the reform have yet to be decided, the official added.

During the news conference, Motegi also said the Cabinet will examine how industries can utilize information technologies and artificial intelligence to make up for labor shortages. He also said the use of more Japanese female and elderly workers will be encouraged. Only then will the government consider how best to introduce more foreign workers, and to those areas still in need of more labor resources, he added.

At Tuesday’s Council of Economic Fiscal Policy session, Abe instructed Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa to hammer out details of the new labor policy.

The jobless rate stood at 2.8 percent in December last year and the job-to-application ratio hit 1.59, the highest level in more than 43 years, meaning there are 159 job openings for every 100 job seekers in Japan.

According to data submitted to the Council of Economic Fiscal Policy the same day, the country’s working population aged between 15 to 64 shrank to 76.65 million in 2016 from 86.99 million in 1997.

And the acute labor shortage is likely to continue as Japan’s population rapidly ages, meaning there will be fewer and fewer native-born young workers as time passes.

Meanwhile the number of registered foreign workers surged from 486,398 in 2008 to 1.28 million in 2017.

Small firms with physically demanding working environments such as nursing services for elderly people and agricultural producers in rural areas are particularly being hit hard by the labor shortages.

Still, Abe’s government has declared it will never rely on allowing immigrants to make up for the labor shortages as many in the Japanese public fear it could disturb the existing social order.