Air Max LTD Shoes White Black Beige 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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It is demanding work, Men's KD 8 Black/Green Shock/Hyper Orange/White,Nike Air Force 1 Premium Low Mens Shoes in Forest green/White/OlMen's Kobe X Elite Black/Wolf Grey/Pink Flash/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 Kyrie 1 Menta/Emerald Green/Fuchsia Flash/White,Nike Air Force 1 Premium Low Mens Shoes in Sky blue/White/OliveMen's LeBron 12 EXT Volt/Black/Volt,, 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 LeBron XIII White/University Red/Black,Nike Air Force 1 Premium Low Mens Shoes in Purple/Red/Gold/BurguMen's NIKE AIR FOAMPOSITE PRO Island Green/Island Green/Metallic Platinum,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Men's Nike Air Force 1 07 LV8 Shoes Blue,Nike Air Force 1 Premium Low Mens Shoes in White/RedMen's Nike Air Force 1 High 07 Midnight Navy/Gum Medium Brown/Black,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

New Balance NB M996CB Made In USA Blue Grey Mens Suede Shoes 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, Men's Nike Air Force 1 White/Turf Orange/Game Royal,Nike Air Force 1 Premium Player Low Mens Shoes in White/Baby bluMen's Nike Air Huarache Ultra Black/White/Total Crimson,, 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, Men's Nike Air Max Excellerate 4 Black/Dark Grey/White,Nike Air Force 1 Supreme Low Mens Shoes in Blue/White/BlackMEN'S NIKE AIR MAX TAILWIND 7 Pure Platinum/Volt/Black,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Men's Nike Air Max TR180 Anthracite/Black/Persian Violet/White,Nike Air Force 1 Supreme Low Mens Shoes in Pure white/LightningMen's Nike Air Presto Black/Neutral Grey/Neutral Grey/Yellow Streak,. "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. "Men's Nike Air Trainer SC Winter Black,Nike Air Force 1 Supreme Marok 1WorldMen's Nike Air Zoom Flight 95 SE Black/Metallic Silver/White,."

Nike Roshe Run London Olympics Anti Fur Mens Red Black White Classic Shoes 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.Men's Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Print Obsidian/Green,Nike Air Force 1 Supreme Low Mens Shoes in White/Sky blue/LightnMEN'S NIKE AIR ZOOM STRUCTURE 18 Lagoon/Black/Flash,. 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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Men's Nike Free 5.0 Print Dark Grey/Volt/White/Reflect Silver,NIKE Air Jordan 10 X Retro Black WhiteMEN'S Nike Free RN Distance Deep Royal Blue/Heritage Cyan/Gamma Blue/Black,, 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.

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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, MEN'S Nike Free Trainer 1.0 Black/University Red/Bright Mango,NIKE Air Jordan 11 XI Retro Low White BlueMen's Nike Free Trainer V7 Week Zero (Duke),, 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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Nike Air Odyssey Leather Casual Shoes Men Royal/Beige 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.

Rakuten's push for global talent began in 2009, Men's Nike SB Dunk Low Pro Ishod Wair Dark Grey/University Red/White/Black,Nike Air Jordan 6 VI Fusion Black Red WhiteMen's NIKE SB STEFAN JANOSKI MAX White/Anthracite/Black/Clearwater,.

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Mikitani's revelation came during a lunch session with Indian engineers. Men's Nike Tennis Classic AC Woven White/Black/White,Nike Air Jordan Big Fund (White/Red/Grey) 310003 901Men's Nike Tiempo Legend VII FG White/Gold,.

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. MEN'S NIKE VAPOR SPEED LOW TD Black/White,Nike Air Jordan Big Fund (Black/Light Graphite) 310003 091Men's Nike Vapor Untouchable Pro White/Metallic Silver,, 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," Men's Nike Zoom Hyperquickness 2015 Black/Dark Grey/Volt,Nike Air Jordan Force 25 High Mens White Black OrangeMEN'S NIKE ZOOM RIVAL D 8 Black/Photo Blue,.

Family ties

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

Puma The Gv Special Iridescent Casual Shoes Men Black 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, Men's NikeCourt Air Zoom Ultra White/University Red/Black,Nike Air Jordan Force 9 IX Low Blue Black WhiteNIKE VAPOR CARBON 2014 ELITE TD PF Black/Metallic Gold/White,, Care Port Itabashi.  

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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. Cheep Air Jordan 7 Shoes Men VGF0493,Nike Air Jordan Jumpman Team Flow Low (White/Chrome) 307572 103Cheep Hermes Shoes Men VGF0087,.  

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, Cheep Hermes Shoes Men VGF0339,Nike Air Jordan Team Handlez (White/Metallic Silver/Lt Graphite) 311834 107Cheep Men'S Kenzo Slippers VGF0638,. 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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