Japan plans a review of visa rules by the summer as it seeks more skilled foreign workers to overcome increasingly severe labour shortages, according to report of Financial Times
The government says it will consider an expansion of visa categories and easing of rules. The main target is technology professionals but it will also look at sectors with severe labour shortages such as care, construction, transport and agriculture.
The review shows how ageing Japan’s urgent need for workers is forcing it to rethink longstanding taboos. However, Shinzo Abe, prime minister, is determined to allow only guest workers, not permanent immigrants.
That will limit the potential economic impact and raises questions about Japan’s desirability as a destination for the highly skilled. “My government has no intention of adopting a so-called immigration policy. We are sticking to that point,” Mr Abe said as he launched the review.
“The preconditions are an upper limit on the duration of a stay and a basic refusal to let family members accompany a worker. With that, we want to come up with concrete proposals for reform by this summer, focusing on the sectors with greatest need.”
The number of foreign workers in Japan has surged during the past five years as a strong economic recovery boosts demand for labour and an ageing native workforce reduces supply. Japan’s unemployment rate is down to 2.8 per cent and the ratio of open jobs to applicant is 1.59, the highest since the early 1970s.
There were 682,450 foreign workers in Japan in 2012, the year Mr Abe was elected to his second stint as prime minister, according to the justice ministry. By 2017 the number had almost doubled to 1,278,670. About a fifth of the expansion in Japan’s labour force under Mr Abe is foreign workers.
However, more than half of the growth in numbers came from loopholes in the visa system, notably students working part-time and so-called “technical interns”, who are theoretically in Japan for training but more often doing low-skilled factory work.
Neither category provides a stable source of labour for shortage sectors such as construction and nursing homes. Business groups, under growing pressure to raise wages to attract native workers, have been lobbying the Abe government to offer more work visas.
“Basically we are looking at revising the system for specialist and skilled workers,” said Toshimitsu Motegi, minister of state for economic and fiscal policy. He said that would include looking sector-by-sector at the minimum necessary skill levels.
Japan has struggled to attract highly skilled foreign workers given steep barriers of language and culture as well as a difficult path to permanent residency or citizenship. Only 5,494 workers have arrived under a points scheme aimed at scientists and business executives since it began in 2015.
In a sign of the political sensitivity around immigration, Mr Abe has entrusted the review to Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary, and Yoko Kamikawa, justice minister, rather than economic ministers who are more likely to favour liberalisation.
Opinion polls show the Japanese public is at best evenly split on immigration when the question is framed as a measure to tackle population decline but opposed to large-scale arrivals or refugees. Younger Japanese are more likely to support immigration but older generations, who turn out most reliably in elections, oppose it.