Japan announced Friday plans to ease immigration restrictions and bring in more foreign workers to tackle a serious labor shortage caused by the country’s ageing, shrinking population.
The government has proposed a new visa status that would allow more overseas workers to fill the employment needs of specific sectors.
“Labor shortages have become more acute,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.
“It is necessary to create a mechanism to broadly accept foreign personnel who are work-ready with certain expertise and skills,” Suga said, adding that the government plans to “quickly” draw up new bills to revise immigration law.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has stressed that the reforms are not intended as a wholesale overhaul of Japanese immigration policy, and mass immigration is not expected.
“Japanese society will not rely heavily on foreign immigrants,” a cabinet office official told AFP before the policy was announced.
The policy is expected to target sectors that have been worst affected by the country’s labor shortage including agriculture, nursing, construction, hotels and shipbuilding, according to local media.
It requires workers to demonstrate some Japanese language skills but the level required would vary by sector.
The government has not set a target for foreign workers under the new proposals, although local media put the figure at more than 500,000 people by 2025.
Those workers would be able to stay for up to five years and only certain skilled workers would be permitted to bring family members with them.
Japan had fewer than 240,000 foreign skilled workers and just over 250,000 foreign trainees in the country in late 2017, according to government figures.
It has bilateral deals admitting limited numbers of nurses and careworkers from other parts of Asia, and allows foreign students to work on a part-time basis.
But businesses have long lobbied for looser rules, saying they struggle to find workers in a country where unemployment hovers around 2.5 percent and there are 159 job offers to every 100 job seekers.
Hiroaki Nakanishi, head of the influential Keidanren business lobby, told reporters earlier this week that the policy was about more than addressing labour shortage.
“Increasing diversity is inevitable for improving Japan’s industrial competitiveness and research and academic levels,” he said.
Facing an ageing population and a declining birth rate, Abe’s government has tried to get more women and elderly people into the workforce, but economists say those measures alone may be insufficient.
The government put the number of foreign workers in Japan in 2017 at 1.28 million people, twice the number a decade ago.
But over 450,000 of those are foreign spouses of Japanese citizens, ethnic Koreans long settled in Japan, or foreigners of Japanese descent, rather than workers coming to Japan simply for jobs.
Another nearly 300,000 are students, who are allowed to work part-time during their studies but are expected to return home afterwards.