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Japan will allow more foreign nationals, including those holding short-term visas, to take a skills test from April under the new blue-collar visa program that is aimed at addressing national labor shortages, immigration officials said Thursday.

The program, which was launched in April last year, was intended to attract up to 345,000 blue-collar workers over five years for jobs in 14 sectors, including nursing care and the hotel industry.

However, so far less than 2,000 have obtained working permits under the new visa program, an abysmally low figure given that the government was expecting to draw 40,000 people in the first year.

Thus, the government is expanding test opportunities with an apparent aim to increase the number of applicants.

The Immigration Services Agency (ISA) on Thursday announced that it will expand the scope of people eligible to take the industrial tests starting April 1 by accepting applications from people with a wider range of visa statuses, including those on short-term stays.

Foreign nationals who wish to participate in the program are required to pass tests in industrial skill and Japanese-language ability.

Currently, people with mid- to long-term resident statuses, which have a maximum of five years, and those who have stayed in Japan for longer are eligible to take the tests.

The change from April means that immigration officials may grant short-term visas of up to 90 days to people who request to take an industrial skills test in Japan.

Aiko Omi, director of the Office of the Specified Skilled Worker Planning at the immigration agency, said the decision is in response to a growing number of people who wish to participate in the program, but who can’t take examinations in their own countries.

According to the ISA, the skills tests are currently conducted in Japan and six other countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Myanmar and Mongolia. Japan is so far the only country where applicants can take an industrial test for all 14 fields.

Omi also said many organizations have been struggling with verifying the status of applicants in the screening process. For instance, when those with student visas apply, the agency needs to check whether they are really enrolled in a school.

The agency has also admitted that the process of introducing industrial skills tests has not been smoothly implemented overseas, which has slowed down the anticipated influx of workers.

As of Jan. 17, applicants taking skills tests in Japan and abroad numbered 10,157, with 5,991 having passed.

“But passing the tests won’t guarantee the applicants permission to stay in Japan under the new visas. It’s merely one of the conditions that include a certain level of Japanese-language and industrial skills,” Omi added.

The plan to allow more foreign nationals to apply for blue-collar visas was included in December in a package of policy measures the government introduced to provide greater assistance for foreign workers.

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