This is the first in a yearlong series examining Japan’s immigration policy as the nation prepares to open its gates to an increasing number of foreign workers from April.
It was shortly after 4 a.m. on Dec. 8, and most people in Tokyo were still asleep.
The plenary session hall of the Upper House was still brightly lit, though, packed with 237 exhausted lawmakers.
They were waiting for what would likely be a historic moment for Japan. The wait was because opposition lawmakers had tried to delay deliberations and votes on a controversial immigration bill.
But on that day the ruling bloc had finally managed to arrange the final vote in the chamber’s plenary session, after hours of protests and strong resistance by opposition parties.
Upper House President Chuichi Date announced the result: 161 white “yes” ballots and 76 blue “no” ballots.
“Thus this bill has been enacted. The session is dismissed!” Date declared.
For ruling lawmakers, it was the moment the government took the first key step to allow hundreds of thousands of foreign blue-collar workers into the country to cope with Japan’s rapidly shrinking and aging population — and therefore, a chronic shortage of people to do the work.
But for opposition lawmakers, it was an ominous political event that will see Japan allow in large numbers of immigrants despite an apparent lack of preparation. A total of 345,000 migrant foreign workers, mostly from Asian countries, are projected to arrive over the next five years.
“The government has decided to introduce (blue-collar) foreign workers through ‘the front door’ for the first time. In that sense, you can call it a historic shift in Japan’s immigration policy,” said Junichi Akashi, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture and an expert on immigration issues.
But the government has yet to form any “visions” of long-term immigration policies, and many key details remain unclear, Akashi also said.
“I don’t think (the government) has any goal or vision yet. They are just waiting to see how the situation will develop from now on,” he said.
Throughout the postwar years, Japan officially has banned the entry of unskilled foreign workers, only allowing professionals and skilled foreign nationals to work here.
The revised immigration law will create two official working visa categories for blue-collar foreign migrant workers for the first time since the end of World War II.
Many key details of the new working visa system have yet to be decided, drawing strong criticism from many experts and opposition lawmakers alike.
On Dec. 25, the government revealed policy measures worth ¥22.4 billion for the next fiscal year to provide support for foreign residents.
The measures include ¥2 billion to set up about 100 multilingual consultation centers for non-Japanese workers around the country.
But funds set aside for education of non-Japanese children at public schools amounted to only ¥300 million for the next fiscal year. What other measures the government will take to integrate foreign workers into local communities largely remain to be seen.
“This legislation will have a big impact on the lives of foreign citizens (in Japan) who have no voting rights here. So I’d like you to give fair, thoughtful deliberations,” Sachi Takaya, an associate professor at Osaka University and an expert on immigration issues, told an Upper House committee hearing on Dec. 5.
But the ruling bloc bulldozed the government-sponsored bill through the Upper House on Dec. 8, only 17 days after the Diet started deliberating it.
There may have been good reasons for the government and ruling parties to push so quickly.
Japan’s jobless rate stood at 2.5 percent in November, a situation that was severely damaging to small firms, in particular those in rural areas.
This acute labor shortage is likely to continue for years to come. According to a 2017 simulation by the labor ministry, Japan’s working population aged between 15 to 64 is projected to shrink by 41.4 percent to 45.29 million in 2065 from 77.28 million in 2015.
“This (working visa) system is needed for talented foreign personnel to play bigger roles in Japan amid the nationwide labor shortage,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news conference in Tokyo on Dec. 10, trying to rally public support for the new system.
In fact, Japan has already allowed in a massive number of unskilled foreign workers every year by issuing “student” and “technical intern trainee” visas for them, which has often been criticized as an unofficial “back door” immigration policy.
As a result, oddly enough, those unofficial workers holding the two types of visas accounted for 40.5 percent of the 1.28 million foreign nationals who were working in Japan as of December 2017.
“In a sense, the new system can be described as (the beginning of) normalization of the situation,” Akashi said.
Currently, foreign “students” are officially banned from working more than 28 hours per week because they are supposedly in Japan for academic reasons.
But many students are believed to be working more hours than legally allowed as they have come to Japan to work, not to study.
Meanwhile, technical intern “trainees” are officially invited to acquire skills and knowledge of technology in Japan so that they can utilize them when they return to their home countries.
But most Japanese firms have been using them merely as cheap laborers. The overseas trainees are not allowed to choose a job or employee after coming to Japan, and this restriction has often forced them to work for low wages and in harsh conditions.
Under the new visa system, the government has selected 14 industries that it says are suffering from particularly acute labor shortages.
Of them, caregiver services for elderly people is the largest single sector, as 50,000 to 60,000 workers are projected to be brought in over the first five years under the revised immigration law.
This is followed by the restaurant industry with 41,000 to 53,000 workers, the construction sector’s 30,000 to 40,000, building-maintenance firms’ 28,000 to 37,000, and the agriculture industry with 18,000 to 36,500.
Chieko Kamibayashi, a professor at Hosei University and an expert on migrant workers’ issues, pointed out that the working conditions in the 14 different sectors vary greatly, and the government needs to prepare different measures to screen or attract foreign workers for each industry.
“But everything is mixed up in this new (visa) system,” she said.
For example, Japan has already created three different visa categories to allow foreign caregivers help ease the severe labor shortage faced by rapidly growing public nursing services for the elderly.
But only a small number of prospective applicants actually applied in Japan and later chose to keep working here, partly due to the language skills required for nursing services.
“Wages of (public) nursing workers are too low in Japan now. It’s difficult to attract foreign workers,” said Akashi of the University of Tsukuba.
To raise wages in the caregiver sector, overall reform of the public nursing insurance system is needed. But the government is not yet ready to carry out such drastic reforms, instead of just creating another visa category for caregivers under the revised law, he said.
Kamibayashi is, meanwhile, concerned that the massive numbers of migrant workers may remain in Japan even after their visas expire.
“How could you return home after living in Japan for 10 years? (Immigration authorities) cannot force hundreds of thousands of people to return to their countries, either,” she said.
Under the new visa system, the government plans to provide the Type 1 visa to foreign workers with certain skills and experience levels, which will allow them to stay and work in Japan for up to five years.
Together with the trainee visa, such migrant workers can live in Japan up to 10 years in total.
However, for example, South Korea, which introduced a similar working visa for unskilled workers in 2004, logged a surge in the number of illegal overstayers to 353,000 last year from 209,000 at the end of 2016.
“The same thing has happened in Germany, too. How can you assume only Japan will be different?” Kamibayashi asked.
If Japan wants to introduce a plan allowing blue-collar workers to stay for a short duration, the working period should be set at, say, three years, and such workers should be managed separately from potential applicants for permanent residency, Kamibayashi said.
The government now plans to provide Type 2 working visas for those who have passed certain skill and language tests. The small number of workers who receive the Type 2 visa will allow the holder to renew it indefinitely, according to the government.
But Type 1 visa holders will all be asked to leave Japan when their visa status expires.
“The government is too optimistic. They say all the workers will return home because they will follow the laws, but that’s very unlikely,” she said.
In reality, Japan may find itself left with few choices, which is likely to force the country to accept more foreign workers and undergo drastic social and economic changes over the coming decades.
Those opposed to allowing foreign workers to come here have usually argued that Japan should first tap more women and elderly workers to ease the acute labor shortage.
But the country is already running out of such workers. Of 37.25 million Japanese women aged between 15 and 64, 70 percent already held a job as of November, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.
“Now, many industries are facing a labor shortage and women and elderly men are able to find more job opportunities,” said Tomoko Shimodaira, an official at the Japan Building Maintenance Association (JBMA).
The main workforce of the building-cleaning industry, one of the 14 sectors the government has selected for foreign workers to find employment in, has long been women and retired men.
But it has become increasingly difficult to recruit those people, Shimodaira said.
In its annual survey this year, 87.9 percent of the JBMA’s 2,800 member companies cited “difficulties” in recruitment as the most urgent trouble they are facing. The figure was only 17.6 percent in 2002.
“If elderly workers and women won’t come to our industry, foreign workers will be the only ones we can rely on,” she said.