By Malcolm Foster and Kiyoshi Takenaka
Shinichiro Tsukada says his small plastering company in Tokyo wouldn’t survive without the 22 Chinese and Vietnamese workers who make up half his payroll
“They’re treasures, real treasures,” he said. “Workers are disappearing as our population ages. Buildings cannot be built because there aren’t enough workers… We have no choice but to allow them into the country.”
Across Japan, hotels, farms and construction sites are feeling an intensifying labour crunch as the worker pool shrinks and demand rises ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
That is prying open the country’s restrictive immigration policies, which until now have only allowed a trickle of so-called unskilled foreign workers into the country.
But authorities are treading carefully because immigration is a delicate subject in Japan. Although public attitudes are slowly shifting, there is widespread concern that an influx of foreigners will upset the social order, increase job competition and weaken traditions.
“I believe we’ll continue to need foreign workers,” said Hiroki Kojima, a 28-year-old in the information technology industry. “But the word ‘immigration’ makes me anxious because good things about Japan, like public safety, could deteriorate.”
Driven by economic and demographic forces, the government is set to announce plans on Friday that will create new five-year work permit categories for foreigners
Officials have said they are focusing on five areas: farming, construction, hotels, elderly care and shipbuilding.
Authorities are also considering allowing foreign workers who pass certain tests to stay indefinitely and bring family members. If the measures are approved by the Cabinet, the government aims to have parliament make them into law this fall.
Although authorities are reluctant to describe the steps as immigration policy, they mark a turn toward a more open Japan.
“We are reaching a point where if we don’t start thinking about immigration, then Japan’s future will be in danger,” said Toshihiro Menju, the managing director at the Japan Centre for International Exchange.
The number of all types of foreign workers in Japan has risen steadily in recent years to 1.28 million – about 1 percent of the population – more than doubling from 486,000 in 2008.
The biggest increases have come in two categories: foreign students, who are permitted to work 28 hours a week, and those on a technical intern programme, which lasts up to five years before participants must return home.
Many trainees see such internships as a way to earn more money than they would at home, while Japanese businesses often hire them to do undesirable jobs that are hard to fill.
The new permits are meant to bring more workers into that pool and have been applauded by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a group of small and medium-sized businesses that have been hit hardest by the crunch.
Surveys show public attitudes are gradually becoming more accepting of foreigners.
A 2017 survey by public broadcaster NHK showed that 51 percent of respondents said restrictions on foreign workers should be maintained at current levels, down slightly from 56 percent in 1992.
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