Comfortable 188816 Nike Air Max Tailwind Women Grey Black Pink Shoes 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 Shoe Nike Roshe One 511881-025,New Balance Women Coupon_1397Men's Shoe Nike TiempoX Proximo IC 843961-141,. 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 Shoe NikeCourt Zoom Cage 2 705247-001,New Balance Women Coupon_1350Men's Training Shoe Nike Free Trainer 3.0 V4 749361-016,.

"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 Training Shoe Nike Train Quick 844406-002,New Balance 373 Women Coupon_1410Nen's nike KOBE X 705317-308,, 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. NIKE AIR MAX PLUS Black/White/Challenge Red,New Balance Women Coupon_1392NIKE AIR ZOOM PEGASUS 31 Titanium/Total Orange/Bright Citrus,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit Black/Anthracite/Dark Grey/White,New Balance Women Coupon_1383NIKE INTERNATIONALIST Deep Burgundy/Team Red/Light Magenta/Hyper,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Boots Calvin Klein Zelda Black Calf 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 ROSHE RUN Midnight Navy/Black-White,New Balance 373 Women Coupon_1416NIKE ZOOM SB STEFAN JANOSKI CANVAS Team Red/Black/White,, 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, Women's Shoe NikeCourt Zoom Vapor 9.5 Tour 631475-100,New Balance 373 Women Coupon_1409Nike Roshe One Girls Toddler Copa/White/Blue Lagoon Running Shoes V48524,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Nike Flex Experience 4 Boys Preschool Midnight Navy/Dark Obsidian/Total Orange/Soar Running Shoes V6,New Balance 1400 Women Coupon_1402Adidas D Lillard 1.0 Boys Grade School Black/Onix/Scarlet Basketball Shoes V23652,. "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. "Nike Air Max 90 Boys Grade School White/Black/Volt/Pink Blast/Total Orange Running Shoes V88625,New Balance 670 Men Coupon_1294Nike Air Max 90 Girls Grade School Prism Pink/Tide Pool Blue/Fuchsia Glow/Pink Foil Running Shoes V6,."

Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Shanti Black Patent/Kid Suede 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.Nike Roshe One Girls Grade School Black/White/Hyper Violet/Volt/Bright Crimson Running Shoes V34827,New Balance 420 Women Coupon_1418Adidas D Lillard 2.0 Mens Black/Vivid Red/Shock Blue Basketball Shoes V29954,. 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

Nike Air Max Tailwind 8 Mens White/Black Running Shoes V86494,New Balance 999 Women Coupon_1551Nike Air Zoom Structure 19 Mens Black/White/Volt Running Shoes V36873,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

Nike Flyknit Racer Mens Fireberry/Volt/Pink Flash Running Shoes V53494,Nike Derrick Rose Men Coupon_1606Nike Zoom Elite 8 Mens Black/White/Volt Running Shoes V36913,, 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.

Womens Sandals CARLOS by Carlos Santana Cairo Blue 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, Adidas Eezay Dots Womens Black/White Flip Flops V31765,Nike Derrick Rose Men Coupon_1590Adidas Response Boost 2 Techfit Womens Bold Pink/Black/Frozen Green Running Shoes V40694,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

Adidas Ace 16.1 Primemesh Fg/Ag Womens White/Solar Gold/Black Soccer Shoes V94342,Nike Derrick Rose Men Coupon_1645Nike Air Max Siren Womens Sport Fuchsia/Black/Summit White/Mulberry Running Shoes V78840,. He speaks basic Japanese, which he picked up watching anime series such as "One Piece" and "Detective Conan."

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Womens Boots Clarks Amaline Art Black Leather 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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Womens Sandals Clarks Leisa Gianna Black Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

Nike Junior Roshe Run One Trainer CP667,Nike Kobe Bryant Men Coupon_1818Nike Nursery Air Max 90 Trainer CP790,. 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,Alessandro Zavetti Canzo Cut & Sew Hooded Top CP955,Nike Kevin Durant Men Coupon_1748Criminal Damage Thorpe Full Zip Hooded Top CP1030,, 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, The North Face Open Gate Full Zip Hooded Top CP1163,Nike Kobe Bryant Men Coupon_1842Carhartt Anchorage Parka Jacket CP1285,.

Womens Shoes Clarks Vailee Pine Black Leather 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. Ellesse Lazzaro Technical Parka Jacket CP1369,Men's Shoe Nike Free Trainer 5.0 V6 AMP (Kentucky) 723939-401Nike Camo Coach Jacket CP1480,.

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. Luke 1977 Horton Cable Knit CP1834,Men's Basketball Shoe Jordan CP3.X 854294-600Hype Script Fleece Short CP2148,, 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," Pacific Standard Bore Swim Short CP2334,Men's Basketball Shoe Jordan Rising High 2 844065-004Nike Tribute Track Top CP3582,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes Clarks Pravana Claire Black Leather 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, Ellesse Navona Full Logo Flip Flop CP3836,Men's Basketball Shoe Kobe XI Elite 822675-510adidas Originals Stan Smith Trainer CP3951,, 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. Converse Star Player Ox Nylon Trainer CP4285,Men's Boot Jordan Future 854554-300Cruyff Vanenburg X-LITE Trainer CP4420,.  

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, New Balance M574 Reflective Trainer CP4553,Men's Basketball Shoe Nike Zoom HyperRev 2016 820224-071Nike Air Force 1 Low Trainer CP4681,. 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," Nike LeBron XIII 'Written In The Stars' Trainer CP4785,Men's Football Cleat Nike Vapor Untouchable Pro 833385-010Ralph Lauren Polo Harvey Leather Trainer CP4963,."

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