The proposed amendment to the immigration control law marks a major turnaround in the government's official policy, which has so far prohibited foreign workers from engaging in manual labor in this country. Despite the policy, Japan has increasingly relied on people from overseas — technical training interns and foreign students, who are officially not coming to Japan to work — to cover a severe domestic manpower shortage in manual labor. The amendment, submitted last week to the Diet, is a step forward in that the nation is finally coming to grips with the need to accept more foreign workers to make up for the labor supply shortage caused by its rapidly aging and shrinking population. Now the challenge is to take steps to create an attractive environment that will encourage foreigner to choose Japan as a work destination.

Behind the policy turnaround is the fact that Japan's economy can no longer be sustained without foreign workers. With the birthrate at nearly an all-time low, the nation's productive-age population (from 15 to 64) has declined by 13 percent from the peak in 1995 to 75.96 million last year — and is forecast to fall below 70 million by 2030 and 60 million in 2040. Although more women and elderly people are joining the labor force, a manpower shortage is growing increasingly acute in many sectors as the economy continues to pick up.

The number of foreign workers in Japan has rapidly increased — reaching a record 1.27 million at the end of October last year, nearly double the level five years earlier. One out of 50 people with jobs were foreigners — with the ratio rising much higher in sectors where the manpower shortage is serious, such as manufacturing, and bars and restaurants. But despite the economy's growing dependence on foreign workers, those with work visas number only about 230,000, or less than 20 percent of the total. While the government has sought to invite more workers with professional skills and expertise, people officially coming to Japan for purposes other than working — foreign students studying at schools in Japan and participants in the Technical Intern Training Program — account for roughly 250,000 each of the total.