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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

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"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.

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Mens Nike Hypervenom Phelon II TF White/Black/Total Orange/Volt/Pink Blast M69D13C 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)

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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, adidas Foundation 2-in-1 Shorts - Basketball - Black White 5VG1877 - Clothing - Men's,Outlet On Sale Casual Shoes - Mens K-Swiss Classic White/Wideadidas Originals Street Modern Over Dye Long Sleeve - Men's - Dark Grey Heather Solid Grey 4CI10254 - Casual - Clothing,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, adidas Supernova Split Shorts - Running - Black 8BF6217 - Clothing - Men's,Outlet On Sale Casual Shoes - Mens Nike Toki Low Black/WhiteAnthracite Nike Lines All Over Print - Men's - Clothing - Black Light Photo 3DH9938 - Casual,. "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. "Atomic Blue Mizuno Wave Rider 20 - Men's - Safety Yellow Blue Depths 8MY11230 - Running - Shoes,Outlet Online Basketball Shoes - Mens Nike Hyperdunk 2014 Gym Blue/Hyper Turquoise/VoltBasketball - Black White 1CJ776 - Jordan AJ XXX - Shoes - Men's Black Anthracite,."

Mens Adidas Originals Stan Smith Red/Power Red M68N68C 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.Basketball - Ivory Mars Stone 3JK10759 - Men's - Nike SF Air Force 1 Mid '17 - Shoes Ivory,Outlet Online Casual Shoes - Mens Jordan AJ Future Low Photo Blue/Black/WhiteBasketball - Jordan Retro 11 Legacy Shorts - Men's - Clothing - Carbon Heather Black 4KU5123,. 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.

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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

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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.

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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, Black Nike Kawa Slide - Men's - Shoes - Dark Grey Washed Teal 7YX3411 - Casual,Outlet Shop Basketball Shoes - Mens Nike Air Force 1 Mid Medium Olive/Sail/Gum Light BrownBlack Shoes - Men's - Converse All Star Street Mid - Basketball - Dark Sangria White 2AW8148,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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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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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.

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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. Cool Grey Men's - Running - White Metallic Silver 0NJ8770 - Nike Air Max Wright - Shoes,Price Down Casual Shoes - Mens Nike Roshe One Flight Weight Bright Citrus/Obsidian/White/Bright MandarinDark Grey Metallic Silver Nike Zoom Span 2 - Men's - Shoes - Black White 1YX2125 - Running,, via a loyalty point system.

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Family ties

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

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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. 

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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. Linen 4 Tights - Khaki Training - Men's - Clothing - Nike Pro Hypercool 3 Black 4YL10550,Professional Sale Casual Shoes - Mens Nike Roshe One Magnet Grey/Black/Dark Magnet Grey/WhiteMen's - adidas Originals Snap Track Pants - Black 6UF2605 - Clothing - Casual,.  

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, Men's - Basketball - Anthracite Black 3LH1388 - Nike Hyper Elite Showtime Jacket - Clothing,Promotions Basketball Shoes - Mens adidas Originals Top Ten Black/Off White/WhiteMen's - Basketball - Nike Rivalry Jacket - Clothing - Anthracite Black 7LX9906,. 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.

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