• Reuters


Only 1 in 4 Japanese companies plan to actively employ foreign workers under a new government immigration program, a poll has found, complicating Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to ease the country’s tightest job market in decades.

Also, the bulk of the firms that may hire immigrants under the program do not plan to support them in securing housing, learning Japanese language skills or acquiring information on living in Japan, the Reuters Corporate Survey showed.

The survey results underscore the challenge Japan faces in coping with its dwindling and aging population, which has put pressure on the government to relax tight controls on foreign labor. Immigration has long been taboo in the country as many Japanese prize ethnic homogeneity.

A lack of language ability, cultural gaps, costs of training, mismatches in skills and the fact that many foreign workers cannot stay permanently in Japan under the new system were among factors behind corporate wariness about hiring foreign workers, the poll showed.

The law, which took effect in April, creates two new categories of visas for blue-collar workers in 14 sectors that face a labor crunch, such as construction and nursing care. It is intended to attract up to 345,000 blue-collar workers to Japan over five years.

But the survey suggests the government may struggle to get the workers it needs to ease the country’s labor woes, where there are now 1.63 jobs available for every job seeker — the most since the beginning of 1974.

“Taking education costs, quality risks and yields into account, costs will go up” by hiring foreign workers, wrote a manager at a rubber manufacturer, who said the firm has no plans to hire foreign workers.

“We have failed in the past by employing foreign workers who could not blend in with a different culture,” a manager of a metal products maker wrote.

Some 41 percent of firms are not considering hiring non-Japanese at all, 34 percent are not planning to hire many and 26 percent do intend to hire such foreign workers, the survey conducted from May 8 to 17 showed.

Of those considering hiring foreign workers, the majority said they have no plans to support them in areas such as housing, Japanese language study and information on living in the country, it showed.

The survey, which is conducted monthly for Reuters by Nikkei Research, polled 477 large and midsize firms with managers responding on condition of anonymity. Around 220 answered the questions on foreign workers.

Under the new law, those in a category of “specified skilled workers” can stay for up to five years but cannot bring family members. Another category is for more skilled non-Japanese nationals and allows them to bring relatives as well and stay in the country for longer.

While foreign workers are generally viewed as cheap labor in Japan, 77 percent of firms see no change in wage levels across the workforce a whole when hiring staff with specified skills. Some 16 percent expect wages to decline, and just 6 percent see wages rising.

Foreign workers “will help ease the labor crunch, bringing down overall wages,” a manager at a steel-maker wrote in the survey.

Abe, whose conservative base fears a rise in crime and a threat to the country’s social fabric, has insisted that the new law does not constitute an “immigration policy.”

Japan has about 1.28 million foreign workers — more than double the figure logged a decade ago but still just 2 percent of the workforce. Some 260,000 of them are trainees from countries such as Vietnam and China who can stay three to five years.

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