Men's Nike Shoe Hyperfr3sh 759996-200 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, Nike Lunareclipse + 5 Womens Black/Pure Platinum/White Running Shoes V24556,Women's Shoe Nike Free Transform Flyknit 833410-600Men's Nike Alpha Strike 3/4 TD White/Black/Black UK#N5-8791,, 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 Nike Magistax Finale IC Black/Volt/White/Black UK#N5-8967,Women's Shoe Nike FS Lite Run 3 807145-016Men's Nike Air Max TR180 Black/Bright Crimson/White UK#N5-9242,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Men's Nike Golf Lunarwaverly Anthracite/Summit White/Iron/Anthracite UK#N5-8934,Women's Shoe Nike Juvenate Woven Premium 833825-400Women's Nike Primo Court Canvas Black/Pink Foil/White/Black UK#N5-9606,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Boots Hunter Huntress Gloss Hunter Red 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 Flex Show TR 4 Wolf Grey/Voltage Green/Cool Grey/Black UK#N5-8862,Women's Shoe Nike Free Transform Flyknit 833410-300Women's Nike FS Lite Run 2 Blue Lagoon/White/Tide Pool Blue UK#N5-9207,, 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, Converse Nursery Chuck Taylor All Star Ox Trainer CP734,Women's Shoe Nike Zoom Fearless Flyknit 850426-001Vans Nursery Authentic Trainer CP801,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Jack & Jones Mike Dexter JOS054 Coated Jean CP870,Women's Shoe NikeCourt Zoom Vapor 9.5 Tour 631475-146Converse MA1 Full Zip Hooded Top CP998,. "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. "Glorious Gangsta Cicerio Velour Full Zip Hooded Top CP1065,Women's Shoe Nike Zoom Winflo 3 831562-600Nike SB Icon Overhead Reflective Hooded Top CP1132,."

Womens Shoes Naturalizer Sincere Coral Metallic Leather 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.Bellfield Oxide Parka CP1228,Nike Air Max 1 Boys Toddler Black/White/Cool Grey/Gym Red Running Shoes V33816Cruyff Krol Tech Puffer Jacket CP1333,. 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 SB Short CP2183,Nike Free 5.0 2015 Girls Toddler Black/Vivid Pink/Pink Pow/Metallic Silver Running Shoes V29437Condemned Nation Sulcis Short CP2302,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

Nike Tribute Track Top CP3584,Adidas Nitrocharge 1.0 Fg Boys Preschool Black/White/Flash Orange Soccer Shoes V34043Timberland 6 Inch Premium Woven Collar Boot CP3784,, 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 Shoes New Balance WX822v2 - Fresh Foam Black/Pink 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 Originals Supercolor Track Top CP3519,Adidas D Rose 773 Iii Boys Preschool Collegiate Navy/White Basketball Shoes V45963Toms Avalon Sneaker Shoe CP3941,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Bjorn Borg X110 Low Suede Trainer CP4259,Nike Roshe One Boys Preschool Wolf Grey/Hyper Pink/Cool Grey/White Running Shoes V98582Creative Recreation Cesario Low XVI Trainer CP4349,," he said. "I want to do more work." He says he wants to run a big farm in Indonesia one day, perhaps growing rice or coffee.

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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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Womens Shoes Nike Free 5.0 TR Fit 5 PRT Black/PinkPow/Bright Citrus/Metallic Silver Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

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"It is impossible for Japanese to create a very competitive technology-based company unless we globalize internally,Womens Shoes adidas Running Powerblaze W Flash Red/Silver Metallic/Light Flash Red,Nike Air Max Tavas Boys Grade School Hyper Cobalt/White/Dark Royal Blue Running Shoes V58310Womens Boots Aerosoles Calendar Grey,, 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, Womens Sandals Aerosoles Say-Yes Multi Fabric,Nike Roshe One Boys Grade School Black/Clay Orange/Summit White Running Shoes V14884Womens Shoes Aerosoles In Between White,.

Womens Shoes Nike Lunarglide 7 Ocean Fog/Voltage Green/Lucid Green/Black 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. Womens Boots ALDO Ladosa Black Suede,Nike Free 5.0 2015 Girls Grade School Copa/Vivid Pink/White/Metallic Silver Running Shoes V48436Womens Shoes ALDO Choewia White/Black,.

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 Boots Anne Klein Grania Pewter,Nike Free Run Girls Grade School Hyper Violet/Hyper Turquoise/Black/White Running Shoes V59688Womens Shoes Anne Klein Meg Navy Reptile,, 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 Anne Klein Aricia Pewter Multi Synthetic,Adidas Crazy 1 Mens Red/White/Aluminum/Black Basketball Shoes V72465Womens Boots C Label Cupcake-1 Chestnut,.

Family ties

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

Womens Sandals PATRIZIA Deisy 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, Womens Sandals C Label Napoli-18 Tan,Adidas Crazy Light Boost Mens Tech Grey/Light Scarlet/Black Basketball Shoes V80592Womens Boots Calvin Klein Charlaine Shadow Grey Kid Suede/Patent,, 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 Shoes Calvin Klein Cirilla Cocoon Leather,Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens Black/Scarlet/White Basketball Shoes V26082Womens Boots CARLOS by Carlos Santana Loretta Black,.  

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 Boots Clarks Palma Rena Taupe Leather,Adidas D Rose 773 4 Mens Royal/Black/White Basketball Shoes V72990Womens Sandals Clarks Nadene Ziva Taupe Leather,. 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," Womens Sandals Clarks Liya Gander Black,Adidas Wall 2 Mens Scarlet Basketball Shoes V73312Womens Shoes Clarks Incast Pump Black Mesh,."

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