National / Politics

Immigration bill clears Lower House despite opposition filibuster and no-confidence motion

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition bulldozed a controversial immigration bill through the Lower House on Tuesday, taking a key step toward initiating a new visa system meant to address the country’s acute labor shortages.

Attempts by opposition parties to block the bill have significantly delayed deliberations and its progress in the chamber. But after hours of delay, the Lower House Committee on Judicial Affairs, controlled by the ruling bloc, approved the bill amid a fierce outcry from opposition representatives. The bill was endorsed at a plenary session of the chamber and was immediately sent to the Upper House.

The ruling bloc is now seeking to enact the bill in the Upper House by Dec. 10, when the current extraordinary Diet session ends.

Deliberations on the government-sponsored bill only started as recently as Nov. 21, leading opposition parties to call for more time for parliamentary debates. The bill is predicted to newly introduce 340,000 blue-collar foreign workers to the nation during its first five years.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the LDP, voted in favor of the bill. Minor opposition party Nippon Ishin no Kai also supported the legislation at the plenary session.

The government regards enactment of the revised law within the current Diet session as vital to launching the planned immigration system in April next year as scheduled.

Earlier in the day, opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan submitted a no-confidence motion against Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita, who is overseeing the revision. The motion was voted down by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its allies.

In submitting Tuesday’s no-confidence motion, lawmaker Kazunori Yamanoi of the Democratic Party for the People resorted to a filibuster by delivering a nearly two-hourslong speech on why his party thinks Yamashita is unfit for the job.

He spent a good part of his speech highlighting examples of abuse and exploitation he said he had learned first-hand from some trainees in recent hearings they attended. Those included working marathon shifts, being overworked and underpaid, having their passports taken away by employers and being consigned to menial jobs for which they had never signed up — such as nuclear decontamination work in Fukushima.

Adamant that the internship program and the new visa system are “inseparable,” Yamanoi maintained that allowing the bill’s passage risks “solidifying” and “expanding” these cases of human rights abuses and could earn Japan international notoriety.

The revision to the immigration control law will create two new visa statuses that will pave the way for an influx of blue-collar foreign workers to some of Japan’s most labor-hungry sectors, such as construction, agriculture, and the nursery and hospitality industries. The new visas would provide rapidly graying Japan with an official source of foreign labor, contrasting with so-called backdoor channels — such as technical trainee internships and student visas — that Japan has for years taken advantage of to sustain its thinning labor market.

The government argues that the new statuses would not shift the nation toward accepting “immigrants.” Some fear an inflow of foreign workers could result in domestic workers losing their jobs, or crime rates soaring.

The apparent haste with which the ruling bloc is trying to pass the bill has antagonized opposition parties who have argued that too few hours have been spent deliberating its details.

During the ongoing Diet session, multiple statistical errors were found in the Justice Ministry’s 2017 internal probe into the departure of foreign trainees from their assigned workplaces for reasons such as rock-bottom wages or abuse.

The data mishandling has further deepened the opposition’s mistrust of what is officially known the Technical Intern Training Program, which is rife with allegations of human rights violations and which they claim will effectively serve as the basis of the new visa system. Many of those currently engaged in the internship program are expected to transition to the new system to gain official working status, although the government insists that the planned framework is completely different from the trainee program.

The envisioned new visa system is comprised of two new statuses. The first would be renewable for up to five years, and in principle would not allow those eligible for the visas to bring along their family members. The second status would be renewable indefinitely for workers with valid employment contracts, and would allow workers to bring spouses and children into the country.

Sakura Murakami contributed to this report