Japan, a country long regarded as immigration-averse, opened its doors wider to workers from abroad on Monday as the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act took effect.

As part of the change, the government has put forward an action plan and guidelines that focus on creating a better living environment for foreign residents. And while the people on the ground tasked with accommodating them say it is a slight step forward, they will have their work cut out for them dealing with the many challenges the newcomers face in adjusting to Japanese society.

Two new residency statuses provided by the visas are expected to let certain industrial sectors alleviate the pinch from Japan’s national labor shortage.

The Type 1 visa can be renewed for five years. Applicants must pass a Japanese test, have a certain skill level in the field they want to work in, and are barred in principle from bringing their families to Japan.

Vietnamese aspiring to work in Japan practice their Japanese.
Vietnamese aspiring to work in Japan practice their Japanese. | KYODO

The Type 2 visa can be renewed indefinitely as long as one is employed. People employed under this category will have higher skill levels than Type 1 visa holders and are permitted to bring their spouses and children along.

Holders of both can only work in 14 designated sectors facing major labor crunches. These include nursing, construction, and agriculture. They are free to change jobs as long as they stay in the same industry.

The government maintains the overhaul does not represent an “immigration policy” as it doesn’t allow the workers to immediately bring their families to Japan on a permanent basis, under a national policy intended to “maintain” the population.

And yet, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe adopted an action plan last December that detailed measures on how foreign individuals — including students, workers, and family members of Japanese — could obtain support they need to better integrate in Japan. The plan lists 126 steps the government plans to take, such as improving language education, encouraging newcomers to enroll in social insurance programs, and increasing multilingual services at hospitals, schools and municipal offices.

One step calls for establishing “one stop” consultation centers for non-Japanese residents in about 100 municipalities that will help those who don’t speak Japanese complete their paperwork at municipal offices.

The government has allocated about ¥2 billion in funding over the past two years for such consultation services.

The city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, is one municipality that requested such funding to improve its consultation center. It hopes to add new machines that will translate some 11 spoken languages into Japanese text in April.

“We requested the funding so we can provide consulting services in so-called rare languages like Vietnamese and Nepalese,” explained Fukashi Kawakami, an Ota city official.

The city already provides consultation services in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese, but the extent to which the machines will really help is hard to gauge, Kawakami said.

“The reality is that foreign residents sometimes already speak fluent Japanese, or visit with friends who can speak Japanese,” Kawakami added. “Under the foreign trainee system, for example, workers would be accompanied with people from their workplace. We’ll just have to see how we can make use of the translation machines that we plan to put in place.”

Another plan proposes call-in translation services for hospitals and doctor’s offices.

However, just calling in to translate medical diagnoses does not bridge the language barrier, explained Yoko Iwamoto, a Yokohama-based medical translator.

“A lot of medical translation relies on visuals,” she explained. Visual cues such as a patient’s reaction or explaining details of how illnesses could affect the body might not necessarily translate well over the phone.

As a medical translator who has almost 20 years of experience in the field, she believes the new plan may help provide medical services to people who only speak rare languages.

That being said, Iwamoto believes “Japan needs a stronger culture of translation” so residents who live and work in the country can obtain equal access to medical services regardless of what language they speak.

The discrepancy between what the action plan posits and what people on the ground feel means that it’s important for the government to continue getting feedback on how to improve policies for non-Japanese, said Kumi Sato, a professor of intercultural studies at Kinjo Gakuin University.

“There is also an imbalance between what municipalities that have a long history of having foreign residents and municipalities that are new to accommodating them need, and the new policies don’t necessarily address that,” she said, adding that a structure where municipalities can share know-how and information on accommodating people from different cultures may be more effective.

“There needs to be a bigger vision” on how Japan plans to accommodate foreign residents, Sato added. “Just talking about numbers to address the labor crunch isn’t going to do anything for the future of this country,” she said.

“Japan needs to envision a future that’s not about making up for a lack of people via foreign resources, but about creating stronger industries … and truly welcoming newcomers into the country,” she said.

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