Men's Shoe Nike Roshe One 511881-663 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 Originals Nursery ZX Flux Trainer CP719,Adidas Adissage 2.0 Mens Mineral Blue/Matte Silver/Mineral Blue Slippers V65489Condemned Nation Rodrick Biker Jeans CP833,, 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. Jack & Jones Tim Original SC111 Jean CP879,Adidas Originals Adilette Mens New Navy/White/New Navy Slippers V66366Creative Recreation Vermont 2 Hooded Top CP1004,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Cruyff Laszlo Lounge Hooded Top CP1038,Adidas Voloomix Mens Black/Metallic Silver Slippers V22049Nike Tech Fleece Hooded Top CP1113,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes Nike Dart 11 Black/Anthracite/White/Pink Pow 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, The North Face Drew Peak Hooded Top CP1166,Adidas Adissage Mens Dark Grey/Base Green/Light Brown Slippers V49168Brave Soul MJK Aberdeen Parka Jacket CP1258,, 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, Hype Flecked Cable Knit Jumper CP1818,Adidas F10 Trx Fg Mens Solar Blue/White/Solar Zest Soccer Shoes V76401Jack & Jones Rick Original AT978 Denim Short CP2153,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Nike Tech Fleece Short CP2190,Adidas Messi 15.1 Fg Mens White/Prime Blue/Black Soccer Shoes V93299UCLA Piped Swim Short CP2347,. "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. "Ellesse Fonda Poly Track Top CP3567,Adidas Barricade 2015 Mens Bright Yellow/Black/Solar Yellow Tennis Shoes V42666Timberland 6 Inch Premium Boots CP3764,."

Womens Boots PATRIZIA Reinforced Dark Brown 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.Ellesse Monaco Slide Sandal CP3830,Adidas Barricade Team 4 Mens Clear Grey/Tech Silver Metallic/Midnight Grey Tennis Shoes V44596adidas Originals Gazelle OG Trainer CP3947,. 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

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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 Shoes PUMA Ignite PWRWarm Fiery Coral 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 Air Force 1 Elite Trainer CP4738,Nike Air Max 2016 Mens Black/White/Reflective Silver/Print Running Shoes V35665Nike Roshe NM Flyknit Premium Trainer CP4816,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Shoes Reebok Sublite XT Cushion MT Alloy/Luminous Lime/White 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 Rocket Dog Wavey White Hawaii Dream 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.

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Mikitani's revelation came during a lunch session with Indian engineers. Womens Boots Calvin Klein Laneige Cement Leather,Nike Shox Nz Mens White/Black/White Running Shoes V88954Womens Sandals Calvin Klein Collection Sofia 1 Watermelon,.

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 Calvin Klein Brie Vapor Leather/Elastic,Nike Shox Nz Mens Black/White Running Shoes V31673Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Morna Deep Navy 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 Sandals CARLOS by Carlos Santana Mira Black,Adidas Anyanda Flex Womens Black/White/Silver Metallic Flip Flops V36185Womens Boots Clarks Malia Poplar A - Wide Shaft Brown Leather,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes Sam Edelman Augusta Light Gold 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 Clarks Palima Palm White Leather,Adidas Energy Boost 2 Esm Womens Midnight Grey/White/Frozen Green Running Shoes V64337Womens Sandals Clarks Helio Float 4 Fuchia,, 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 COACH Urban Hiker Saddle/Natural Shearling,Adidas Response Boost Womens Clear Sky/White Running Shoes V45346Womens Sandals COACH Coral Stone/Chalk,.  

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 COACH Chrissy Outline Black/Smoke/Black Signature C/Nappa,Adidas Supernova Sequence Boost 7 Womens Flash Pink/White/Night Flash Running Shoes V53802Womens Boots Cole Haan Dorian Stretch Boot Stormcloud,. 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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