Foreign fourth-generation descendants of Japanese will be able to work in Japan for up to five years under a preferential visa program to be introduced this summer, the Justice Ministry said Friday.

The new program applies to ethnic Japanese between 18 and 30 who have basic Japanese skills equivalent to the N4 level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Applicants will also be required to have support from residents they know in Japan, such as family members or employers, who can get in touch with them at least once a month.

Among those planning to apply are people who spent their childhoods in Japan with their parents before losing their jobs during the 2008 global financial crisis. Some of their parents later returned to Japan, but their grown-up fourth-generation offspring could not because the visa system only grants preferential full-time working rights and semi-permanent status to second- and third-generation descendants.

“The door has been closed for fourth-generation people. So there are definitely people who really need the new program,” said Angelo Ishi, a third-generation Japanese-Brazilian professor in the sociology department of Musashi University.

At present, fourth-generation ethnic Japanese are required to meet certain conditions to get a visa, such as being single minors who live with their parents, but can’t work full-time.

Under the new system, minors will be able to work. The new program begins on July 1, and the Justice Ministry expects around 4,000 descendants of Japanese emigrants from such places as Brazil and Peru to enter Japan each year. But the ministry said the new system is not aimed at alleviating the national labor shortage, but at nurturing people who can “bridge Japan and the Japanese-descendant communities abroad.

Critics are skeptical. They say the new immigrants could be used as cheap labor at factories or construction sites in dire need of labor, especially ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I believe one of the reasons behind the change has to do with the Olympics,” said Kiyoto Tanno, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who is an expert on foreign labor issues. “But such demand could disappear. That’s why, I guess, the ministry placed a cap on the number of years.”

Demand for Japanese-Brazilian workers has indeed been growing over the past few years, particularly in the manufacturing sector, according to Takaharu Hayashi, president of Avance Corp., a staffing agency catering to ethnic Japanese in Aichi Prefecture.

When the economy slumps, the Japanese-Brazilian temporary workers are the first to be laid off, which is exactly what happened during the 2008 global financial crisis, said Hayashi, who has been running his staffing business for over 30 years.

Japan saw a huge influx of Japanese-Brazilians following the revision of immigration laws in 1990 that granted second- and third-generation descendants the right to work with full-time and semi-permanent status.

The number of Japanese-Brazilians steadily grew to a record 310,358 in 2007, before the government offered them incentives to repatriate during the financial crisis. In 2016, the number stood at 176,391, according to the ministry.

Hayashi of Avance said he has already received many inquiries about the program from fourth-generation Japanese-Brazilians.

“Many want to come to Japan … We can easily find at least 500 or 600 people,” he said.

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