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The government is likely to fall far short of its target of issuing work permits under a new visa system to 340,000 non-Japanese over the next five years to alleviate acute labor shortages in 14 sectors.

As of the end of September, only 219 foreign residents had obtained the “specified skills” visa introduced last April, according to the Immigration Services Agency. The number of people holding the status abroad stood at 1,024 as of Nov. 15.

Non-Japanese wishing to obtain the specified skills visa are required to pass a test on the skills needed in their desired work sector as well as a Japanese-language proficiency examination. People who have completed the government’s three-year technical intern training program are exempt from taking the test and are allowed to change their visa status to the new one.

Of the 219 successful applicants, 176, or some 80 percent, received the new visa under the exemption rule. The remaining 43 include 17 who came to Japan as nursing care workers or other participants under economic partnership agreements between Japan and other countries. In other words, only 26 people had obtained the visa by passing the exams.

The exams have been held in only six countries other than Japan. Vietnam, which has sent the largest number of workers under the internship program, has held no such exams.

Of the 14 work sectors, which include nursing care, restaurants and agriculture, skills exams have been conducted for only six.

The new visa system has had a slow start due partly to a lack of preparation in countries sending workers to Japan. For example, the Philippines has started exams for people wishing to work in the nursing care and agricultural sectors but has yet to establish related departure procedures, so successful applicants cannot head to Japan.

In response, Japan will “work to increase the number of sectors for which exams are held and the countries that conduct them,” Justice Minister Masako Mori said. “We will also help sender countries to improve the necessary procedures.”

Another limiting factor has been the complicated application procedure. In response, Mori said her ministry will hold briefing sessions and make the information on its website more understandable.

Southeast Asian nations, though seen as suppliers of workers to Japan and other countries struggling with serious labor shortages, are starting to attract workers from abroad to tackle their own labor crunches.

In these circumstances, “competition for competent workers will intensify,” a government official in Tokyo said, stressing that Japan should start negotiations with labor supplying counties to simplify embarkation rules.

The Immigration Services Agency is meanwhile aiming for all 14 work sectors to have skills exams by the end of March.

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