Shop Nike Lebron Zoom Soldier 7 Galaxy 599264-403 Farruq Fahlevi, left, and Muhamad Irvan Gustian, both from Indonesia, work on a farm harvesting cabbages in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)
Cover Story

Famous for its resistance to immigration, Japan opens its doors

Number of foreign workers doubles in five years as nation faces labor crisis

Men's O,SUPRA / CHINO OFF WHITE / LIGHT GREY 08051-159Men's REEBOK Classic Harmon Running Shoes Black/White (BLACK),. Along with a group of Japanese colleagues, they will spend the day moving heavy wooden pilings and pouring concrete for the foundation of a seven-story condominium block. 

It is demanding work, Men's REEBOK Workout Ready Elements Crew (COAL-AJ3066),SUPRA / SCISSOR LIGHT GREY / RED 08027-040-MMen's SKECHERS Afterburn-Memory Fit Shoes Wide (BLACK),.

"I've chosen the construction industry because the work involves lots of communication and helps improve my Japanese," Hoang said, in fluent Japanese. He eventually wants to work as a translator in Japan, and hopes that his fiancee will be able to join him there one day.

His employer, Men's Speedo Marina Volley Swim Trunk Short (Heather Green),SUPRA / FLOW DEMITASSE SUEDE / GUM 08325-286-MMen's TIMBERLAND PRO Safety Toe Pit Boss Work Boots Wide (WHEAT),, said trainees like Hoang are indispensable for his company of 32. "Foreign trainees learn faster than Japanese," Maeda said. "They are more serious, more hardworking, and take fewer days off. They are keen to learn and work hard for money. Men's Under Armour Expanse Quarter Zip Fleece (Stealth Gray/Black),SUPRA / CHINO BROWN SUEDE / WHITE-WHITE 08051-210-MMen's Under Armour Renegade Mid MC Football Cleats (Black/Green),. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Men's VAN HEUSEN Solid Interlock Polo Short-Sleeve Polo (BUR CHABLIS-646),SUPRA / HAMMER RUN DEMITASSE / BONE 08128-285-MNike Futura Knit Beanie (Black/Black),. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Nike Free44-0292 Vietnamese trainee Dang Ngoc Hoang works at a building site in Tokyo. With Japan's construction workforce rapidly aging, new sources of labor are needed. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

The demand for construction workers is intensifying before the 2020 Olympics, Nike Free46-0098,SUPRA / CHINO TX LIGHT GREY / WHITE 08065-042-MNike Free46-0110,, the program has boomed in recent years -- and is one reason that the number of foreign workers in Japan has nearly quadrupled over the last decade.

Nike Free45-1014,SUPRA / CHINO COURT BLACK SUEDE / GUM 08058-055-MMan Vapormax-0005,, Japan is in the midst of a quiet revolution when it comes to immigrant workers. Jordans 6-0201,VANS / LAMPIN (SUEDE) MEDAL BRONZE / BLACK VA38FIOISBasketball kyrie-0083,.

Without fanfare, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has steadily loosened Japan's once tightly controlled visa policy, resulting in an almost doubling of the number of foreign workers in Japan to 1.28 million over the last five years. In its latest move, Abe's government is expected to create a new class of  five-year work permits for unskilled workers in hopes of attracting more than 500,000 new overseas workers by 2025. The new guidelines, to be finalized in June, will ease language requirements for foreign workers in construction, Basketball James-0571,VANS / AV RAPIDWELD PRO LITE PORT ROYALE VA2XSE4QUJordans 8-0040,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Man Air Max 2010-0091,VANS / ERA (2-TONE CHECK) ROUGE RED / TRUE WHITE VA38FRMV5Nike Free45-0915,. "My government has no intention of adopting a so-called immigration policy," Abe said in February.

Yet the total number of foreign residents in Japan has grown 20% in the last three years, reaching 2.6 million in 2017, or 2% of the total population. In Tokyo, one in eight residents who came of age this year were foreigners.

"Anyone wandering around Japan, from Hokkaido to Tokyo to Okinawa, knows that there is growing diversity in schools and the workplace," said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan. "Jordans 5-0156,DC / CENTRAL SNDL GREY / RED 303049-GRFJordans KID 11C-3y-0332,."

Adidas Adistar Racer - Black/Black/White Hot Sale Foreign workers have become a part of everyday life in Japan, yet public debate on immigration remains limited. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

While foreign workers are now part of everyday life in Japan -- making ready-to-eat foods in convenience stores, growing fruits and vegetables on farms and sorting packages for delivery companies -- public debate has been limited.Man Max 87-0216,CONVERSE / WMNS CHUCK TAYLOR LOW DAYBREAK PINK / MOTEL POOL / EGRET 551632CMAN Max 2017-0039,. As a result, Abe's position -- despite its apparent contradictions -- has faced no strong pushback from the public or politicians yet.

Many Japanese look at the deep divisions in the West over immigration and conclude that a more open policy should be avoided. Yet the steady relaxation of migration rules has not led to the social fissures seen elsewhere.

"Basketball OTHER-0251,NIKE / WMNS AIR PRESTO MID UTILITY NIGHT MAROON / NIGHT MAROON 859527-600Nike Flyknit-0212,, like all other countries, does have racist problems, but hate crime and hate speech are relatively Nike Free44-1086,SUPRA / LOCKER WHITE / BLACK 08040-100-MNike Free45-0864,," Kingston said.

With Japan facing its tightest labor market in decades, the business community would like Abe to go further. The unemployment rate stands at 2.5%, the lowest level in 25 years. There are now 1.59 jobs for every job seeker, the highest ratio since 1974.

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Given Japan's demographics -- it is the world's oldest advanced economy -- the labor shortage is only going to intensify. The nation's working-age population, defined as those aged between 15 and 64, is expected to decrease more than 40% to 45 million over the next 50 years. By contrast, those aged 75 or older, dubbed the "super-elderly," are projected to make up more than a quarter of the population.

Cabbages and car parts

Basketball Kobe-0501,VANS / WMNS AUTHENTIC (DITSY BLOOM) TRUE WHITE VA38EMOMAMan Max Lunar-0058,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

Basketball Durant-0271,QUIKSILVER / GLITCHED 18 BDSH GLITCHED FIERY CORAL EQYBS03377-MKZ6MAN Max 2017-0022,, the government's trainee program has allowed them to hold on to their livelihoods.

Among them is Kota Hirohara, 56, who raises cabbages on his small farm. On a recent May day, two Indonesian trainees were harvesting Hirohara's cabbages by hand with large nakiri, or vegetable knives. Hirohara says his farm is not big enough to need an expensive cabbage harvesting machine.

Adidas Honey Hi Winter - Dark Navy/White Vapour/Dark Navy Best Indonesian trainees harvest cabbages at a farm in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

The two men, Muhamad Irvan Gustian and Farruq Fahlevi, both 21, can pick as many as 4,000 cabbages during their eight-hour workday. They also weed the fields, Jordans 12--080,VANS / GC STRIPE S/S BLACK-FROST GREY VA3161D7IMan Max 87--199,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

Man Shox TURBO--004,DC / BASS LINE JCKT BLUE IRIS EDYJK03060-BTL0Jordans 30--015,. He speaks basic Japanese, which he picked up watching anime series such as "One Piece" and "Detective Conan."

Man Max 95-0075,CONVERSE / TEXTURE BOXSTAR FILL S/S WHITE 10003677-102Nike Free45-0695,," he said. "I want to do more work." He says he wants to run a big farm in Indonesia one day, perhaps growing rice or coffee.

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Adidas Phantom - Dark Petrol/White Vapour/Bliss Coral Discount A Vietnamese worker checks autoparts at a Shigeru plant in Gunma Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobyashi)

The workers at Shigeru make instrument panels used in the Outback, Impreza and other models. The company hires Japanese part-timers in response to changes in demand, but Masayoshi Tabata, general manager, says foreign trainees are more dependable. "Part-timers quit when they find better-paying jobs. Trainees stay for three years."

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Trainees are discouraged from going back to their country before finishing the three-year term or from having a child, and they cannot bring their spouse on the visa.

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International pressure and media reports led to a law change in November 2017, allowing only certified organizations to participate in the trainee program. Criminal penalties were introduced for mistreatment of workers while a new government agency has been given a legal mandate to conduct random inspections. A whistleblower system has also been created that allows cases of abuse to be reported via email, a telephone hotline or a dedicated website. Most trainees have smartphones with them and have Wi-Fi access in their dormitories.

Fast-track system for tech workers

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Adidas Superstar Foundation - Ftwr White/Ftwr White/Ftwr White Website Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

Nike Free44-0937,GARAGE / SW LOGO WHITENike Flyknit-0152,. technology companies like Google and Uber in the emerging fields of autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, ride-sharing and the internet of things. In these new fields, the flow of ideas -- and people -- is vital.

"It is impossible for Japanese to create a very competitive technology-based company unless we globalize internally,Basketball OTHER-0122,DC / GLORIOUS PAST S/S SNOW WHITE EDYZT03626-WBB0Jordans other-0094,, CEO of Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, at an in-house seminar last year.

At Rakuten's Japanese headquarters in a Tokyo suburb, a quarter of its roughly 6,000 employees are foreigners. The company hires about 400 engineers every year, of which 70% are non-Japanese, mainly Indians and Chinese.

Rakuten's push for global talent began in 2009, Basketball Kobe-0380,DC / FUNROW S/S BLACK EDYZT03614-KVJ0Air Force LOW-0297,.

Adidas ZX 500 OG MADE IN GERMANY PACK - Vintage White/Vintage White/Clean White Website Foreign students attend a job fair in Tokyo. Japanese companies, including e-commerce player Rakuten, are increasingly looking for international talent. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Mikitani's revelation came during a lunch session with Indian engineers. Nike Free44-0880,THRASHER / BOYFRIEND S/S WHITE 370005-WHTBasketball Kids5-7-0066,.

Amit Agrawal, a 35-year-old engineer from India, is one of those who were hired by Rakuten.

"Most Japanese companies don't accept non-Japanese speakers. Rakuten is one of the companies that accept non-Japanese-speaking people," said Agrawal, who works in a massive open room that is almost entirely filled by foreign workers. Jordans KID 11C-3y-0262,JORDAN / FLIGHT ZH GYM RED / BLACK 823064-687Man Max 90-0781,, via a loyalty point system.

"Rakuten is basically an e-commerce company, but we are moving into other businesses also. I wanted to work in the latest technologies," Kid Max 2014-0043,ONE / ICON ZH RED / BLACK 36184-007Basketball OTHER-0090,.

Family ties

But IT workers are an exception. Most others, even skilled workers, face significant hurdles to settling in Japan.

Air Jordan 1 Mid - White/University Blue-White 100% Genuine Marliezl Abud, left, and a fellow Philippine worker talk to an elderly woman at a care center in Tokyo. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

One of the biggest difficulties has to do with restrictions on allowing family members to accompany workers -- a move designed to prevent permanent immigration. Though they are starting to loosen for a small number of the most skilled workers, such restrictions may limit Japan's allure as a destination for people with sought-after training. 

Among those whose skills are in great demand is Marliezl Abud, Air Force LOW-0248,ONE / TECH CASUAL ZH GRAY 36171-006Nike wonen Flyknit-0083,, Care Port Itabashi.  

Nike Free44-0795,VANS / FULL CHAIN PH CONCRETE HEATHER VA314Z02FAir Force LOW-0200,, it entered economic partnership agreements with the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam that would allow up to 900 caregivers a year to come work in the country for up to four or five years each. 

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Abud was able to come to Japan through this program, but the hurdles were high. Only those with a four-year-college degree and a Philippine qualification as a caregiver were accepted. Kid NIKE25-37-0067,ONE / HONDA LIMIT ZH BLACK / RED 15-88350Nike Free45-0232,.  

She sends most of her salary to her parents and sisters back in the Philippines. Her younger sister has a daughter who is going on to private school, and Abud's earnings contribute to her niece's education.

Abud felt a crushing homesickness at first. But after she had passed the local exam, Basketball Kobe-0265,DC / KIDS WANDERER S/S SNOW WHITE EDBZT03172-WBB0Nike Free44-0677,. She likes the shopping, too.

But she and her husband see possible obstacles ahead for their lives in Japan. Her visa allows her husband to work only up to 28 hours a week, which could pose problems if they start a family.

"I want to have a child next year," Basketball Kobe-0223,DC / KIDS WORKER SHORT GREY / PLAID ADBWS00004-GPLNike Free45-0416,."

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