Men's Running Shoe (Jungle Pack) Nike Free RN 849811-406 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, Nike Juvenate Womens Black Running Shoes V12853,Women's Shoe Nike LunarGlide 8 Shield 849569-002Nike Lunartempo Womens Wolf Grey/Fuchsia Flash/Flash Lime/Black Running Shoes V98275,.

"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 Nike Alpha Strike 3/4 TD White/Black/Black UK#N5-8791,Women's Shoe Nike Roshe One Hyperfuse BR 833826-800Men's Nike Mercurial Victory V CR IC Black/Total Crimson/White UK#N5-9594,, 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 Free Trainer 3.0 V4 Black/University Red/Volt/Team Red UK#N5-9234,Women's Shoe Nike Air Max Jewell 896194-300Nike Kids Sunray Protect Black/Bright Crimson/Gym Red UK#N5-9451,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Women's Nike Dart 11 Black/Dark Grey/White/White UK#N5-9365,Women's Shoe Nike Zoom Winflo 3 831562-001Women's Nike Dual Fusion Trail Wolf Grey/Anthracite/Black/Pink Pow UK#N5-9467,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Boots Naturalizer Later Black Leather 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, Ellesse Regent Nylon Backpack CP46,Women's Training Shoe Nike Metcon 1 813101-002Mr Lacy Flat Laces CP356,, 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.

Converse Infant Chuck Taylor All Star Party High Trainer CP497,Adidas Rose 4.5 Boys Toddler Clear Grey/Light Scarlet/Dark Onix Basketball Shoes V44484adidas Originals Junior ZX Flux Trainer CP561,, Japan is in the midst of a quiet revolution when it comes to immigrant workers. Nike Junior Air Max 90 Leather Trainer CP656,Nike Flex Experience 4 Boys Toddler Wolf Grey/Dark Grey/White/Volt Running Shoes V97740Nike Junior Flight Huarache Trainer CP672,.

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, Flossy Nursery Polka Plimsole CP768,Nike Tri Fusion Run Boys Toddler Game Royal/Black/Metallic Silver/White Running Shoes V54584Levi's 511 Slim Jean CP897,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Condemned Nation Blyth Tech Poly Hooded Top CP985,Nike Air Max 90 Girls Toddler Copa/White/Blue Lagoon Running Shoes V48465Criminal Damage Thorpe Full Zip Hooded Top CP1031,. "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 SB Icon Full Zip Hooded Top CP1118,Nike Flex Experience 4 Girls Toddler Black/Volt/Pink Pow/White/Vivid Pink Running Shoes V30398Bellfield Nimrod Fishtail Parka CP1234,."

Womens Shoes Naturalizer Kaster Grey 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.Condemned Nation Mia Bomber Jacket CP1300,Adidas Messi 15.3 Fg Boys Preschool Black/Solar Green/Solar Red Soccer Shoes V27730Ellesse Lazzaro Technical Parka Jacket CP1369,. 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

Creative Recreation Toluca Swim Short CP2306,Nike Flex Experience 4 Boys Preschool Midnight Navy/Dark Obsidian/Total Orange/Soar Running Shoes V6Ellesse Favalli Taped Track Top CP3547,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

H By Hudson Houghton Desert Boot CP3745,Nike Roshe One Boys Preschool Wolf Grey/Cool Grey/White Running Shoes V97241Calvin Klein Flip Flop CP3827,, 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 Classics WL574 Pop Tropical - Spectrum 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 Originals Gazelle OG Trainer CP3945,Adidas Crazy 8 Boys Grade School Black/Bright Yellow Basketball Shoes V14786adidas Originals Spezial Trainer CP4044,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Shoes Nike Dart 11 Blue Graphite/Dove Grey/White/Pink Foil 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 Nike Air Zoom Elite 8 White/Dark Grey/Black/Pure Platinum 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 Boots Aerosoles In An Instint Black,Nike Air Max 90 Girls Grade School White/Blue Lagoon/Metallic Silver Running Shoes V89555Womens Sandals Aerosoles Wip Free Black,, 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 Shoes Aerosoles Dimperial Black,Nike Air Max 90 Girls Grade School Pink Blast/Black/Gamma Blue Running Shoes V68529Womens Boots ALDO Genn Taupe,.

Womens Shoes Nike Zoom Winflo 2 Bright Crimson/University Red/Atomic Pink/Metallic Platinum 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 Sandals ALDO Napoleone Bone,Nike Roshe One Girls Grade School Black/Pink Blast/White/Gamma Blue Running Shoes V23935Womens Boots Anne Klein CityGurl Black Suede,.

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 Anne Klein Falicia Grey Leather,Adidas Crazylight 2.5 Boost Low Mens White/Yellow/Maroon Basketball Shoes V96790Womens Shoes Anne Klein Tameron Navy/Cognac Nubuck,, 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 Badgley Mischka Pixel Ivory Satin,Adidas Crazy 97 Mens Mid Grey/Solar Blue/Orange Basketball Shoes V64240Womens Sandals C Label Davita-1 Black,.

Family ties

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

Womens Sandals PATRIZIA Soren Teal 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 Shoes C Label Clower-3 Wine,Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens Navy/White/Dark Orange Basketball Shoes V65696Womens Sandals Calvin Klein Vivian Black,, 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 Camella Dancer Pink,Adidas Isolation 2 Mid Mens Black/Silver/White Basketball Shoes V27228Womens Sandals CARLOS by Carlos Santana Benita Oceanic Blue,.  

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 Kearns Awe Brown Leather,Adidas Energy Boost 2 Mens Earth Green/Night Shade/Solar Slime Running Shoes V53163Womens Sandals Clarks InMotion Sail Denim,. 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 Shoes Clarks Delsie Joy Black Suede,Adidas Pure Boost Mens Base Green/Black Running Shoes V11855Womens Shoes Clarks Kadri Leah Black Snake Leather,."

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