Japan to adjust visa policy amid labor shortage

Japan has long stood out among industrialized nations for its closed-door policy on immigration. But as the country faces an acute labor shortage, on top of looming problems brought on by population decline, Tokyo is moving to open up, at least somewhat, to foreigners.

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Japanese officials said Thursday that the government is looking to allow more foreign workers in blue-collar positions to stay indefinitely and bring their families with them. The move would potentially open up opportunities to live in Japan long-term that are currently available only to a small cadre of foreigners in sought-after professions. The change would mark a substantial shift in a country traditionally seen as unwilling to turn to immigration, even when experts urged it as a solution to labor shortages, population decline or in response to refugee crises.

Under a program that began in 2019, semiskilled workers in understaffed sectors, including manufacturing and janitorial work, had been allowed to work in Japan for up to five years, but were not allowed to bring their families.

However, workers in two sectors, construction and shipbuilding, were subject to different rules that allowed them to renew their visas repeatedly and bring their families to live with them.

Amid a labor shortage worsened in part by the coronavirus pandemic, Nikkei Asia reported Thursday that the government was now planning to expand the looser rules to all 14 business sectors that are understaffed in Japan, potentially opening up extended residency to a far larger proportion of foreigners as soon as next year, according to the business-focused daily newspaper.

At a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno confirmed the news, but emphasized that there was a difference between renewals of visas and permanent residency.

“I understand that the Immigration Services Agency and other relevant bodies are currently looking into the matter toward expanding” the category of workers who can renew visas and bring their family, Matsuno said, according to Reuters.

Though the moves are modest in global perspective, they are significant in Japan. For decades, immigration was a political taboo, with concerns about culture and ethnic homogeneity often espoused by Japan’s powerful right-wing. The country accepted only modest numbers of immigrants, often making strict requirements of them. Only select groups, such as the families and descendants of Japanese emigrants who had made new lives in Latin America, were offered permanent residency.

While persistent conventional wisdom held that large-scale immigration would be a political nonstarter, officials took quiet steps to bring in steadily increasing but still relatively small numbers of workers without sparking much public debate. This often occurred under tenuous circumstances, including rules allowing foreign students to work part time in jobs that have sparked controversy over reports of poor conditions.

Japan’s closed-door policies have long stood in stark contrast to those of many of its peers: By 2016, the country had accepted only a handful of refugees from Syria’s civil war, while European countries and the United States had received thousands.

But in recent years, the aging of Japan’s population has raised significant questions about the policy. In 2016, official figures showed that the country’s population had declined by almost 1 million people in five years, marking the first time that records showed a drop in population.

In late 2018, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government pushed through a law that opened immigration to foreigners in 14 understaffed industries, based on an estimate that the fields in question were seeing a shortfall of some 345,000 workers. According to Nikkei Asia, about 35,000 workers were in the program as of August.

Though Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which is still in power although Abe has left office, is conservative, it is also closely aligned with Japan’s business community, which had warned about looming shortages. And polls have generally shown that Japanese citizens are open to allowing more immigration, often viewing it as inevitable, though a staunch anti-immigrant wing persists.

The pandemic has only heightened the push, putting the Japanese economy under strain. The country’s economy shrank at a 3 percent annual rate between July and September, according to official data released this week.

Though some experts met the proposed policy shift with cautious praise, others warned that many foreigners in Japan have suffered under exploitative employment situations and poor living standards codified by previous immigration programs.

Foreign workers in Japan have long complained of insufficient labor protections, long hours, low pay and isolation.

This week, after the death of a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman at a detention facility in March, Japanese officials pledged to reform the country’s Immigration Services Agency. The woman, Wishma Sandamali, had been detained after overstaying her student visa. Her family has filed a criminal complaint against the director and deputy director of the facility, as well as the officers in charge on the day of her death.

“Such an incident must never happen again,” Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa said in an interview with Japanese outlets.