Men's Shoe Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 3 Premium 831382-001 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 Hayward Backpack CP85,Adidas Crazy Light 3 Mens White/Black/White Basketball Shoes V88748Calvin Klein 1 Pack Power Red Cotton Trunk CP407,.

"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 Originals Infant Racer Lite Trainer CP470,Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens Base Green/Gold Met/Scarlet Basketball Shoes V11884Havaianas Infant Brasil Logo Flip Flop CP521,, 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 Junior Free Run 2 Trainer CP625,Adidas D Lillard 1 Mens Frozen Blue/Scarlet/Blue Basketball Shoes V54108Nike Junior Air Jordan 8 Retro BG Trainer CP669,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Dr. Martens Nursery Core Colby 3-Eye Lace Shoe CP763,Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens Navy/White/Dark Orange Basketball Shoes V65696Brave Soul Peter Skinny Stretch Jeans CP830,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes New Balance W990AB3 Aquamarine 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, Alessandro Zavetti Canzo Cut & Sew Hooded Top CP955,Adidas D Lillard 2.0 Mens Gold/Dark Grey/Green Glow Basketball Shoes V55850Condemned Nation Caesar Tech Hooded Top CP982,, 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, Ellesse Volante Raglan Puffer Jacket CP1367,Adidas J Wall Mens Scarlet/White Basketball Shoes V74027Native Youth Ripstop Padded Tech Parka Jacket CP1461,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, The North Face Glacier Delta Zip Fleece Jacket CP1518,Adidas Real Deal Mens Light Grey/Prime Blue/Red Zest Basketball Shoes V61134Jack & Jones Brody Button Knit CP1825,. "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. "Converse Core Plus Terry Short CP2113,Adidas D Rose 773 Iii Mens Light Scarlet/Black/White Basketball Shoes V61831Nike Tribute Short CP2180,."

Womens Shoes Nike Flex Flury Game Royal/Green Glow/Menta/White 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.Jack & Jones Odyssey Swim Short CP2317,Adidas Energy Boost 2 Mens Earth Green/Night Shade/Solar Slime Running Shoes V53116Kappa Hunt Track Top CP3577,. 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 Modern Forum Shoes CP4146,Adidas Pure Boost 2 Mens Black/Dark Grey Running Shoes V16634adidas Originals Tubular X Trainer CP4184,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

Cortica Epic Runner Trainer CP4312,Adidas Pureboost 2 Mens Clear Onix/Grey/White Running Shoes V45139Creative Recreation Kaplan Trainer CP4370,, 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 PATRIZIA Salome Beige 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, Hugo Boss Gym Knit Trainer CP4498,Adidas Springblade Drive Mens Tech Grey/Blue Beauty/Collegiate Navy Running Shoes V80398Nike LeBron XI Low Trainer CP4577,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Shoes PATRIZIA Chevron Beige 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 Ignite XT Core Fluo Peach/Rose Red/White Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

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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 Vilko Black/Black Fabric,Nike Air Max Tailwind 8 Mens White/Black Running Shoes V86494Womens Shoes Badgley Mischka Kassidy II Platino Diamond Drill Fabric,.

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Mikitani's revelation came during a lunch session with Indian engineers. Womens Sandals C Label Milan-19A Blue/Black,Nike Air Max 95 Mens University Red/Wolf Grey/Black/Pure Platinum/White Running Shoes V83508Womens Shoes C Label Clower-5 Wine,.

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 Clancey Shadow Grey Kid Suede,Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Mens Ghost Green/Copa/Blue Lagoon/Black Running Shoes V55655Womens Sandals Calvin Klein Babel Almond Tan/Black Leather/Muted Snake Print Leather,, 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 Neive Black Kid Suede/Patent,Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Mens Total Crimson/Black/White/Print Running Shoes V80766Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Gerarda Deep Navy Patent,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes Rocket Dog Rynna Mulberry Coast 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 Boots CARLOS by Carlos Santana Galina Titanium,Nike Cortez Mens Obsidian/Metallic Silver/White Running Shoes V67182Womens Boots Clarks Glick Willa Navy Nubuck,, 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 Cleaves Zing Oyster Leather,Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit 2015 Mens Black/Hyper Orange/University Blue/Sail Running Shoes V20551Womens Shoes Clarks Cordella Chant Bronze Leather,.  

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 Regina Chestnut Leather,Nike Lunarestoa 2 Mens Black Running Shoes V12577Womens Sandals COACH Shelly Saddle Semi Matte Calf,. 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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