Men's Training Shoe Nike Free Trainer 5.0 V6 AMP (Florida State) 723939-706 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, Antony Morato Script Overhead Hooded Top CP963,Nike Air Max 90 Ultra Mens Black/White/Anthracite Running Shoes V32655Creative Recreation Coronado Lounge Hooded Top CP1016,, 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. Levi's Batwing Overhead Hooded Top CP1098,Adidas Energy Bounce 2 Boys Grade School Blue/Semi Solar Slime/Collegiate Royal Running Shoes V40260Nike SB Icon Full Zip Hooded Top CP1122,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Bellfield Nimrod Fishtail Parka CP1235,Nike Air Max 90 Mens Dark Grey/Dark Grey Running Shoes V50175Condemned Nation Larsen Parka CP1290,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes Nike Free 5.0 Black/Chalk Blue/Hyper Orange 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, Gensen Harrington Jacket CP1383,Nike Air Max Ltd Mens White/Black/Neutral Grey Running Shoes V88305Kings Will Dream Bomber Jacket CP1428,, 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, Creative Recreation Toluca Swim Short CP2304,Nike Air Max Plus Mens Wolf Grey/Met Silver/Laser Orange/Sonic Yellow Running Shoes V98864Creative Recreation Lincoln Track Top CP3543,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, EA7 Core ID Cotton Tracksuit CP3600,Nike Air Zoom Structure 19 Mens Black/Total Crimson/Racer Blue/Sail Running Shoes V29158Toms University Slip On Espadrille CP3807,. "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 Free Rift Sandal CP3865,Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Mens Black/White/Black Running Shoes V33275adidas Originals ZX Flux Trainer CP3960,."

Womens Sandals PATRIZIA Zozma Silver 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.adidas Originals Racer Lite Trainer CP4038,Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Mens Blue Lagoon/Bright Citrus/Total Orange/Black Running Shoes V39618adidas Originals Los Angeles Trainer CP4115,. 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

Lyle & Scott Teviot Twill Plimsoll CP4551,Nike Flyknit Lunar 3 Mens Black/White/Hyper Jade Running Shoes V34630Nike Paul Rodriguez CTD Canvas Trainer CP4650,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

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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.

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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, Puma Trinomic XT 1 Yin Yang Trainer CP4896,Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit 2015 Mens Black/Hyper Orange/University Blue/Sail Running Shoes V20524Superga 2750 Cotu Classic Trainer CP5005,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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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 Sandals Sam Edelman Tyra Black 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 C Label Binky-4 Black,Adidas Energy Boost 2 Womens Solar Blue/Tech Grey Metallic/Solar Metallic Running Shoes V76374Womens Sandals C Label Cider-4 Gold/Brown,, 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.

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Womens Shoes Sam Edelman Carol New Nude Leopard 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 Calvin Klein Shanti Platinum White/Sand Gold Nappa,Adidas Supernova Boost Glide 7 Womens Frozen Green/Solar Yellow Running Shoes V54178Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Nasser Greige,.

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 CARLOS by Carlos Santana Gramercy Taupe,Adidas Supernova Sequence Boost 7 Womens Clear Sky/White/Lucky Blue Running Shoes V45439Womens Shoes CARLOS by Carlos Santana Posy Floral,, 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 Boots Clarks Kearns Blush Brown Leather,Adidas Anyanda Flex Womens Solid Grey/Raw Purple/Clear Onix Slippers V78764Womens Sandals Clarks Reid Delmar Light Tan Nubuck,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes Saucony Grid Shay XC3 (Flat) Purple/Yellow 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 Clarks Delsie Joy Black Suede,Adidas Gymbreaker Bounce Trainer Womens Black/Night Metallic/Super Purple Training Shoes V23429Womens Shoes Clarks Daelyn Towne Black Leather/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 COACH Smith Black Cherry Cut Snake,Nike Air Max Excellerate Womens White/White/Black Running Shoes V95091Womens Shoes COACH Noella Moss/Black Silk Nappa/Box Calf,.  

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 Cole Haan Callie Slip On Waterproof Blazer Blue Patent,Nike Air Max 1 Womens Wolf Grey/Total Orange/Summit White/Team Red Running Shoes V98994Womens Sandals Cole Haan Cady High Sandal Fiery Red,. 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 Cole Haan Amalia WV Sling Skim Black/Ivory,Nike Air Max Thea Womens Grey Mist/Grey Mist Running Shoes V56479Womens Shoes Cole Haan Antonia Open Toe Pump Silver/Gunmetal Glitter/Dark Silver Metallic,."

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