National / Politics

Japan's Upper House begins debate on bill to expand use of foreign labor


Debate on a bill to accept more foreign blue-collar workers began Wednesday in the House of Councillors after the ruling bloc forced it through the Lower House the previous day despite an outcry from opposition parties.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito are seeking passage of the bill during the ongoing Diet session that continues through Dec. 10. Meeting that schedule would allow the major immigration policy shift — an attempt to address serious labor shortages caused by an aging population and falling birthrate — to take effect in April.

Opposition parties have argued for closer scrutiny of the bill. Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, lambasted the ruling camp for having “bulldozed” the House of Representatives’ deliberations on Tuesday.

“Why on earth did such an empty bill clear the Lower House? I can’t hide my anger about the (ruling bloc) railroading it without taking questions,” he said at a meeting of the party’s Upper House members.

Many opposition lawmakers have claimed the bill lacks details, and expressed concerns that specifics would be decided through ministerial ordinances without Diet deliberations. They also showed frustration that the bill was only deliberated for 15 hours and 45 minutes by the Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee, which was shorter than the amount of time spent on other controversial bills in recent years.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference that the Lower House had held “enough” discussions over issues related to the bill, which was also debated by the chamber’s Budget Committee. In a rare move, Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima on Tuesday called on the government to explain the “whole picture” of the new system to the Diet before the revised immigration law takes effect, showing a degree of consideration for the views of the opposition.

On Wednesday morning, the LDP and Komeito agreed to abide by Oshima’s request, with LDP Diet affairs chief Hiroshi Moriyama saying, “It’s important to obtain public understanding and cooperation.”

Meanwhile, opposition parties confirmed they would work together to block enactment of the legislation. CDP Diet affairs chief Kiyomi Tsujimoto told reporters the party will “seek to scrap the bill.”

In rural areas where labor shortages are acute and many foreign laborers from overseas are expected to arrive, anxiety has been growing over a lack of preparations for helping them adapt to life in Japan — including with Japanese-language education and medical assistance. “Local governments would be in trouble unless the state prepares responsibly (for the inflow of foreign workers),” Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso said Wednesday at a news conference.

The ruling bloc rushed to wrap up Lower House deliberations in time for Abe’s departure Thursday for the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

So far, Japan has basically accepted the arrival of only highly skilled foreigners such as professors and doctors. But the bill under debate is expected to allow in many blue-collar workers from overseas in 14 sectors deemed to be suffering from labor shortages, ranging from nursing care to food services and the construction industry.

Under the envisioned scheme, two new types of residence status for non-Japanese workers are expected to be created. The first, valid for up to five years, will be given to workers with certain skills but will not allow their family members to accompany them.

The second new status will be for foreign nationals needed in fields that require higher levels of skill. The government does not plan to limit the number of visa renewals under this second status, paving the way for them to effectively live indefinitely in the country.

The government has estimated that the nation would accept up to 47,550 foreign workers in the first year from next April, and up to 345,150 over five years.

The number of foreign workers in Japan hit a record 1.28 million as of last October, doubling from 680,000 in 2012, according to the labor ministry. Chinese nationals make up the largest group at around 370,000, followed by Vietnamese and Filipinos.