The government may allow 500,000 low-skilled foreign workers entry to the country for a maximum of five years though fiscal 2025 as a part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new economic policy outline expected to be released in mid-June, according to sources.
Under the new plan, laborers with Japanese proficiency would be allowed to work in the agriculture, construction, lodging, nursing and shipbuilding sectors. As for the country’s existing foreign trainee program, where Japanese language skills are not required, the maximum length of stay would be extended to 10 years.
The Cabinet Office — the agency charged with putting together the prime minister’s annual economic policy outline — would not confirm the exact number of workers being considered, but officials said the government was “debating an expansion of foreign labor.”
If the policy is enacted, the move would be the latest indicator that the nation’s policymakers are slowly and gradually recognizing the necessity of foreign labor for maintaining economic growth amid the rapid aging of much of the population. Yet unchanged from the previous policy is the fact that foreign workers are only allowed to stay for a limited amount of time, rather than allowing for outright immigration.
While Japan’s demographic decline is years in the making, for the most part lawmakers have avoided accepting foreign labor over fears that liberal immigration policies are inconsistent with maintaining Japan’s largely homogeneous society.
“There has been pressure from two opposite sides on accepting foreign labor, with business calling for more foreign workers but society harboring worries about accepting more foreigners into Japan,” said Saburo Takizawa, a former representative in Japan for the U.N. refugee agency.
But Takizawa believes that labor shortages and economic realities have pushed the debate past a tipping point, with more people now in favor of accepting foreign labor.
“I think there is an increasing recognition that Japan needs more workers, so I don’t think there will be backlash to this policy,” Takizawa added.
For the past several years, the amount of foreign labor has grown rapidly, in part to meet the growing demand for workers as many Japanese reach retirement age.
Although there were 1.28 million foreign workers in Japan last year — more than double the 480,000 present in 2008 — the new influx of workers is still nowhere near enough to meet the huge labor needs of Japanese businesses.
The latest job-related data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, released Tuesday, showed that the jobs-to-applicants ratio stood at 1.59, meaning that there were 159 job openings for every 100 workers.
If enacted, the plan is still far from an overhaul of the country’s immigration policy, as workers would be unable to bring families and would be forced to return home after their visa expires, according to local media sources.
For this reason some remain skeptical whether these latest policy changes are truly transformational.
“They may be kind of just jiggling the current system. For example, allowing for people to work in more industries or for a longer period of time,” said Ken Shibusawa, the Chairman of Commons Asset Management, Inc.