Men's Shoe Nike Air Max Zero Breathe 903892-700 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, Calvin Klein 1 Pack Linear Cotton Trunk CP405,Adidas Adipure Crazyquick Mens Collegiate Royal/White/Joy Blue Basketball Shoes V46179Converse Infant Chuck Taylor All Star Ox Trainer CP498,, 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. adidas Originals Junior ZX Flux Trainer CP552,Nike Roshe Run Flight Weight Girls Grade School Black/White/Hyper Pink Running Shoes V34789Nike Junior Free Run 2 Trainer CP625,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. adidas Originals Nursery Superstar Foundation Trainer CP699,Adidas Crazy 8 Mens Phantom/Tech Grey/Vivid Mint Basketball Shoes V68115Nike Nursery Air Force 1 Low Trainer CP783,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes New Balance Fresh Foam Boracay White/Purple 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, Glorious Gangsta Sauer Mid Wash Denim Jean CP850,Adidas D Lillard 1 Mens White/Black/Gold Met Basketball Shoes V87898Waven Erling Skinny Jean CP916,, 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, Brave Soul Sanjay Light Bomber Jacket CP1282,Adidas D Lillard 1 Mens Black/Frozen Green/Scarlet Basketball Shoes V18730FILA Mauro Harrington Jacket CP1370,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Only & Sons Skeet Parka CP1484,Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens Black/Onix/White Basketball Shoes V23665VMU London Wool Leather Bomber Jacket CP1551,. "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. "Jack & Jones Detroit Waffle Knit Jumper CP1819,Adidas D Rose 6 Mens Scarlet/White/Black Basketball Shoes V74205Converse Core Fleece Short CP2115,."

Womens Shoes Nike Dual Fusion Trail Wolf Grey/Anthracite/Black/Pink Pow 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.Criminal Damage Noir Windbreaker Jacket CP1332,Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens Cardboard/Light Brown/Night Brown Basketball Shoes V43397Luke 1977 Molby Swim Short CP2322,. 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

adidas Originals Tubular Runner Trainer CP4021,Adidas D Rose 773 Lux Mens Scarlet/Black/White Basketball Shoes V73862adidas Originals Rayado Trainer CP4120,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

Asics Gel-Lyte III Evo Trainer CP4219,Adidas Energy Boost 2 Mens Solar Blue/Carbon Metallic/Black Running Shoes V76032Creative Recreation Santos Trainor CP4347,, 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 Boots PATRIZIA Timandra Bordeaux 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, Cruyff Santi Technical Trainer CP4415,Adidas Cosmic Boost Mens Flash Green/White/Flash Red Running Shoes V53525Hugo Boss Victual Trainer CP4494,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

Nike SB Check Trainer CP4617,Adidas Energy Boost 2 Esm Mens Black/Zero Metallic/Solar Yellow Running Shoes V38703Nike Nike Free Socfly Trainer CP4674,. He speaks basic Japanese, which he picked up watching anime series such as "One Piece" and "Detective Conan."

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Womens Sandals PATRIZIA Tahir Black 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 PUMA Pulse XT Geo Cayenne/Astra Aura 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 ALDO Galliher Black,Adidas Predator Absolado Instinct In Mens Solar Red/White/Night Flash Soccer Shoes V77731Womens Boots Anne Klein AKGalenka Black/Grey Multi Fabric,, 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 Anne Klein Barb Wine Patent,Adidas Powerlift Trainer 2 Mens White/Black/Bright Royal Training Shoes V87226Womens Shoes Anne Klein AKQualified Black Multi Fabric,.

Womens Shoes Reebok Sublite XT Cushion MT Black/Laser Red/White/Flat Grey 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 Shoes Badgley Mischka Meghan Silver Satin,Nike Air Max Sequent Mens White/Cool Grey/Pure Platinum/Black Running Shoes V90785Womens Sandals C Label Napoli-18 White,.

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 Calvin Klein Zelda Loden Calf,Nike Air Max Turbulence Ls Mens Wolf Grey/Pure Platinum/White Running Shoes V98881Womens Sandals Calvin Klein Allie Black,, 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 Calvin Klein Annika Black Microsuede,Nike Air Max Bw Ultra Mens University Red/Bright Crimson/University Red Running Shoes V82317Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Leilani Black Cow Silk,.

Family ties

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

Womens Sandals Rocket Dog Portia White You Fancy 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 Calvin Klein Gayle Jazzberry,Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Mens Black/White/Black Running Shoes V33230Womens Sandals CARLOS by Carlos Santana Kaden 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 Clarks Esha Haven Black Synthetic,Nike Flex Fury Mens Wolf Grey/Total Orange/Cool Grey/Anthracite Running Shoes V98990Womens Shoes Clarks Claribel Fame Taupe Nubuck,.  

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 COACH Samara Black/Black/Aniline Leather/Nylon,Nike Free 5.0 2015 Mens Bright Crimson/White/Black Running Shoes V42160Womens Sandals COACH Concord Ginger Veg Leather/Loganberry Patent,. 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 COACH Teddie Bronze,Nike Free 5.0 2015 Mens Black/White/White Running Shoes V37385Womens Shoes COACH Olive Bronze/Metallic Cross Grain Leather,."

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