• Reuters, staff report

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In a major shift for a country long reluctant to accept immigrants, Japan is looking to allow foreign nationals in certain blue-collar jobs to stay indefinitely starting as early as the 2022 fiscal year, a Justice Ministry official said on Thursday.

Under a law that took effect in 2019, a category of "specified skilled workers" in 14 sectors such as farming, construction and sanitation have been allowed to stay for up to five years, but without their family members.

The government had been looking to ease those restrictions, which had been cited by companies as among reasons that they were hesitant to hire such workers.

If the revision takes effect, such workers — many from Vietnam and China — would be allowed to renew their visas indefinitely and bring their families with them, as the other category of more skilled foreign workers are allowed to do now.

Nikkei business daily reported Thursday that the government was looking to expand the other category, which is currently reserved only for two of the 14 sectors— construction and shipbuilding — to cover the rest of the 14 sectors to effectively eliminate the five-year cap.

Asked about the Nikkei report, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a news conference that the government is now "considering" the matter, but noted that any change means making renewal of visas possible, but not giving permanent residency status outright.

"I understand that the Immigration Services Agency and other relevant bodies are currently looking into the matter toward expanding sectors" to the more privileged category, Matsuno said.

Immigration has long been taboo in Japan as many prize ethnic homogeneity, but pressure has mounted to open up its borders due to an acute labor shortage given its dwindling and aging population.

"As the shrinking population becomes a more serious problem and if Japan wants to be seen as a good option for overseas workers, it needs to communicate that it has the proper structure in place to welcome them," said Toshihiro Menju, managing director of think tank Japan Center for International Exchange.

The 2019 law was meant to attract some 345,000 "specified skilled workers" over five years, but the intake hovered at around 3,000 per month before the COVID-19 pandemic sealed the borders, according to government data.

As of late 2020, Japan housed 1.72 million foreign workers, out of a total population of 125.8 million and foreign nationals make up just 2.5% of its working population.

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