The government’s decision to create a new visa status for foreign workers to fill the domestic manpower shortage represents a major change in Japan’s strict immigration policy that has in principle prohibited foreigners from engaging in unskilled labor. With its rapidly aging and declining population, the nation needs to sustain its workforce. This is a step in the right direction and a welcome change from the policy of trying to fill manpower needs through the Technical Intern Training Program and work provided by students from overseas. The challenge going forward will be how Japan can attract enough foreign workers as competition among countries to secure labor from abroad is set to intensify.

Under the decision featured in the outline of the government’s economic and fiscal policy, the new status will be accorded to those who will work in sectors suffering from acute domestic manpower — including agriculture, construction, shipbuilding, lodging services and elderly nursing care — after passing skills tests in each sector and Japanese language exams. The maximum term of their residence will be five years. People who have taken part in the Technical Intern Training Program for at last three years will be exempt from the skills and language test requirements. An amendment to the Immigration Control Law will be submitted to the Diet as early as this fall, and the government reportedly expects to accept roughly 500,000 people from overseas under the program by 2025.

The government has prohibited foreigners from engaging in unskilled labor, while seeking to invite more foreign workers with professional expertise in such jobs as education, legal services and business management. As the number of registered foreign workers keeps rising and hit a record 1.28 million as of last year, however, much of the increase has in fact come in unskilled labor provided by people whose purposes in Japan are not supposed to be employment, such as the technical interns and students from overseas — who together account for more than 40 percent of the foreign workforce.

The Technical Intern Training Program launched in 1993 is meant to enable participants who hail from developing countries to acquire job skills and techniques while working at Japanese companies and farms, and take the skills back to their home countries to contribute to economic development there. But it has long been criticized as a scheme for supplying cheap labor to industries and businesses that struggle to secure domestic manpower — while labor abuse of the trainees by their employers, such as excessively long working hours and unpaid wages, have been widely reported. The program has been expanded in recent years in response to complaints of manpower shortage — the trainees’ maximum period of stay was extended to five years and nursing care was added last year to the sectors in which trainees are allowed to work.

It is unmistakable that the nation cannot do without workers from overseas to fill the gap in manpower supply and demand — which will only intensify as the Japanese population continues to gray and shrink. The government’s review of its policy of not accepting unskilled laborers from abroad is long overdue, and the decision to create the new visa status, instead of continuing to rely on unskilled labor provided by the technical interns and students, is a positive step that attempts to tackle the challenge head-on.

The question then is whether enough people from overseas will choose Japan as a place to work. Japan is not the only country seeking foreign workers to fill manpower needs, and the decision of workers will be based on how attractive Japan is as a place to work and live.

The government maintains that its decision on the new visa status is not a policy to accept immigrants — against which opposition remains strong within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Along with the maximum five-year limit on their stay, the workers under the planned visa status will not be allowed to bring family members to Japan — although the government is reportedly considering giving workers on such status a chance to gain the status for workers with professional expertise — who will be free from such restrictions — if they have obtained higher skills.

If the government is serious about inviting more workers from overseas, it needs to consider policies and systems that will attract them to this country, not just in terms of working conditions but their living environment as well. Now that the decision on the new visa status has been made, the government and businesses alike should think carefully about that issue and come up with ideas that will encourage workers from overseas to come to Japan.

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