Men Nike Air Max Wright'Running Shoes' Obsidian/Obsidian/Cool Grey/Pure Platinum Model UK2103 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

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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.

His employer, Asics Tiger / Gel-Spotlyte Sneakers / White/Marble,Men Nike Prestige IV'Basketball Shoes' Black/Black/Anthracite Model UK2128,Betsy / Peeptoe Heels With Ankle Straps / Pink,, 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. Body Glove / Kim 2 Back To School Plimsolls / White,Men Nike Air Max 2015'Running Shoes' Game Royal/White/Blue Lagoon/Black Model UK2174,Call It Spring / Ocaolle Sandals / Gold,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Cele / [Cele] Leather Canvas Sneakers with Contrasting Lace and Stitching / Coffee,Men Nike Lunar Force 1 Fuse Low'Basketball Shoes' Wolf Grey/Deep Royal Blue/Atomic Red/ Model UK2199,Clarks / Medly Sun Loafers / Burgundy Suede,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

4 x Eminence KILOMAX PRO 18 8ohm 18 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, Converse / CONS Star Player Skate Sneakers Ox / Navy,Men Reebok Club C'Casual Shoes' White/ Model UK2254,Crystal Korea Fashion / Crystal Korea Fashion Heels / Black,, 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.

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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, High Cultured / Casual Sandals / Grey,Men Nike SB Stefan Janoski Max'Casual Shoes' Tide Pool Blue/Black/Tour Yellow Model UK2250,Keds / Triple Seasonal Solid Mono Sneakers / Pale Peach,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Louis Cuppers / Embossed Ballerinas / Grey,Men Reebok ZPump Fusion'Running Shoes' Grey/Black/White/Graphic Model UK2284,Mango / Velvet Strappy Heels / Grey,. "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. "Adidas Originals Court Vantage Blue,Men Nike SB P. Rod 9 CS'Casual Shoes' Ale Brown/Black/Gym Red Model UK2235,Adidas Originals Tubular Shadow Knit Blue,."

PAIR PACK (x2) Celestion FTR15-4080F 15 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.Adidas Originals Stan Smith W White,Men Salomon XA Pro 3D'Running Shoes' Swamp/Dark Titanium/Seaweed Green Model UK2395,Asics Gel-Kayano Trainer Evo W White,. 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.

Adidas Big Sean Attitude Hi Mens 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, Nike W Air Max 90 Ultra Plush Pink,Men Timberland 6" Exo Web Boot'Casual Shoes' Navy Reflective Model UK2539,Nike Wmns Nike Free Og Superior Pink,, 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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Adidas Adipower Pator Red SL Phantom Warning Silver Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

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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. Boys Slippers Fashion Color 752368,Nike Lunarglide 6 Anti-Fur Mens Shoes Light Grey Royalblue Yellow Z8313,Mode Adidas Soccer Boots ACE 15.1 Fg_AG Orange Black White A60i8875,, 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.

Adidas ZX 700 Running Shoes Black fluo Green Blue White 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. 

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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. Get Great Selection Nike Mercurial Finale II Turf Soccer Boots Black Pink White F22f8805,Nike Flyknit Lunar 3 Mens Running Shoes Blue/Black Z8545,Browse & Buy Online Nike MercurialX Finale Street Indoor Soccer Shoes Gold Black Red G70e7743,.  

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, Official Nike Sb Hyperfeel Koston 3 Skateboard Shoes For Men Blue Yellow S79y5553,Nike Flex Experience RN Mens Running Shoes Black White Z8511,BA8850 Big Boys Adidas Young Shoes Ultra Boost Uncaged Hytebe Velvet Red/Deep Garnet Big Boys Adidas,. 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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