Men's Basketball Shoe Kobe XI 836183-084 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, Adidas Volley Team 3 Womens Black/Silver Metallic/Dark Grey Volleyball Shoes V26695,NIKE ROSHE RUN Poison Green/BlackNike Air Max 1 Ultra Womens Black/White/Stealth/Pure Platinum Running Shoes V36596,, 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 90 Ultra Womens Black/Cool Grey Running Shoes V15333,NIKE SB LUNAR ONESHOT Team Red/White/BlackNike Classic Cortez Womens Black/Metallic Red Bronze/White Running Shoes V21981,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Nike Flyknit Lunar 3 Womens Copa/Blue Lagoon/Summit White/Black Running Shoes V47964,NIKE SB LUNAR STEFAN JANOSKI Anthracite/Wolf Grey/BlackNike Lunarglide 7 Womens Black/Copa/Hyper Orange/White Running Shoes V16487,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes ECCO Auckland Loafer True Navy 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 Mercurial Vortex II FG Urban Lilac/Bright Mango/Black UK#N5-8844,Nike SB Zoom Stefan Janoski Slip-On Premium Unisex Skateboarding Shoe 833582-441Men's Nike Hypervenomx Finale TF Wolf Grey/White/Total Orange UK#N5-9287,, 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, Glorious Gangsta Dakota Roll Top Backpack CP50,Nike Unisex Running Shoe Zoom Streak LT 2 599532-107Mr Lacy Runnies Laces CP368,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Flossy Infant Plimsole CP513,NIKELAB X SACAI AIR MAX 90 Volt/Obsidian/Voltadidas Originals Junior Tubular Trainer CP578,. "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. "Timberland Junior 6 Inch Premium Boot CP693,NikeCourt Air Zoom Ultrafly Unisex Tennis Shoe (Men's Sizing) 819692-007adidas Originals Crib Superstar Trainer CP721,."

Womens Shoes GUESS Anasia Black Synthetic 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.Glorious Gangsta Sauer Mid Wash Denim Jean CP850,Women's Nike AIR ZOOM PEGASUS 31654927-102adidas Originals Sport Luxe Twill Fleece Hooded Top CP951,. 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.

"Ellesse Tommasi Hooded Top CP1048,Women's Running Shoe Nike Free RN 831509-100Nike AW77 Fleece Full Zip Hooded Top CP1135,, like all other countries, does have racist problems, but hate crime and hate speech are relatively Asylum Kennet Jacket CP1223,Women's Shoe Nike Air Max 1 Premium 454746-204Condemned Nation Woody Bomber Jacket CP1309,," 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

Good For Nothing Whitefield Fur MA2 Bomber Jacket CP1397,Women's Shoe Nike Air Huarache Ultra 819151-002Publish Rosh Printed Bomber Jacket CP1504,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

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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.

Womens Sandals Naturalizer Daria Sailboat Turquoise Leather 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 SB Short CP2183,Women's Shoe Nike Air Max 90 Ultra Essential 724981-007Native Youth Block Colour Swim Short CP2323,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Shoes Naturalizer Peace Grey Plaid Fabric/Black Smooth 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 Shoes New Balance WT910v2 Purple/Orange Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

Oill Prague Solid Signature Trainer CP4883,Women's Shoe Nike Free Transform Flyknit 833410-100Supra Hammer Run Trainer CP5016,. 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,Y3 Snow Model Trainer CP5118,Women's Shoe Nike LunarEpic Flyknit 818677-800adidas Originals Womens ZX Flux Zero Tech NPS Trainer CP5258,, 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.

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Womens Shoes New Balance Classics 574 - Glacial Teal 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)

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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. Womens Shoes Aerosoles A2 by Aerosoles Big Hearted Black,Nike Free 5.0 2015 Boys Toddler Obsidian/Cool Grey/Wolf Grey/Metallic Silver Running Shoes V66966Womens Boots ALDO Lillianne Black Suede,, 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," Womens Shoes ALDO Galenadda Black Suede,Adidas Nitrocharge 1.0 Fg Boys Preschool Black/White/Flash Orange Soccer Shoes V34023Womens Boots Anne Klein Camdenw Brilliant Suede,.

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. 

Among those whose skills are in great demand is Marliezl Abud, Womens Shoes Anne Klein Ovido Brown Reptile,Adidas Ace 16.1 Fg/Ag Leather Boys Preschool Solar Green/Shock Pink/Black Soccer Shoes V76796Womens Shoes Anne Klein AKQualified Navy Multi Fabric,, 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. Womens Boots Calvin Klein Jeans Sienna Black,Adidas D Rose 6 Boys Grade School Black/Vivid Red/Shock Blue Basketball Shoes V29938Womens Sandals Calvin Klein Collection Sibil 1 Watermelon,.  

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, Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Nathali Deep Navy Kid Suede,Adidas D Rose 773 Iii Boys Grade School Light Onix/Black Basketball Shoes V61174Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Darielle Shadow Grey,. 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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