NIKE FREE 1.0 CROSS BIONIC Polar/White/Pink Pow 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, Bellfield Tenant Rain Jacket CP1240,Nike Roshe One Mens Wolf Grey/White Running Shoes V99266Creative Recreation Culver Bubble Jacket CP1324,, 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. Foray Control Softshell Hooded Jacket CP1377,Nike Shox Deliver Mens Black Running Shoes V12625Kings Will Dream Rikers Jacket CP1431,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Selected Talon Trench Jacket CP1515,Nike Tri Fusion Run Mens Black/Green Strike/Cool Grey/White Running Shoes V19265Hawksworth Faroe Cable Knit Jumper CP1807,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes PATRIZIA Christine Black 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, adidas Originals Premium Essentials Fleece Short CP2064,Nike Tri Fusion Run Mens Dark Grey/White/Black Running Shoes V51107Jack & Jones Morgan Long Short CP2159,, 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 Monaco Slide Sandal CP3830,Nike Zoom Elite 8 Mens White/Dark Grey/Black/Pure Platinum Running Shoes V90885adidas Originals Gazelle OG Trainer CP3945,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, adidas Originals ZX Flux Trainer CP3972,Adidas Eezay Dots Womens Raw Purple/Sun Glow/Purple Glow Flip Flops V72309adidas Originals Copa Skate Woven Trainer CP4078,. "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. "adidas Originals Hamburg Trainer CP4144,Adidas Adizero Tempo Boost 7 Womens Mid Grey/Solar Red/Granite Running Shoes V64263Asics Gel-Lyte EVO 'Samurai Pack' Trainer CP4231,."

Womens Boots Rocket Dog Hallie Sand Americana 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.Creative Recreation Cesario Low XVI Woven Trainer CP4318,Adidas Cc Rocket Boost Womens Frozen Green/Frozen Yellow Running Shoes V54148Cruyff Puente Diamond Trainer CP4413,. 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

Nike Air Max 1 Ultra Moire Trainer CP4821,Adidas Response Boost Womens Clear Sky/White Running Shoes V45342Ralph Lauren Polo Jermain Leather Trainer CP4961,, 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.

Womens Boots Sam Edelman Caldwell Florence/Black Boucle/Atanado Leather 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, Timberland Womens 6 Inch Premium Boot CP5176,Adidas Supernova Sequence 6 Womens Blast Purple/Blast Purple Metallic/Electricity Running Shoes V390Unisex Shoes adidas Adizero TJ/PV Navy/White/Equipment Green,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Shoes Sam Edelman Des Black/Citrine 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 Sam Edelman Orella Golden Caramel Leather 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 Sandals Calvin Klein Jiselle Navy Patent,Nike Air Max 90 Womens Black/Wolf Grey/White Running Shoes V38344Womens Sandals Calvin Klein Jeans Bellany Navy Leather,, 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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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 Sandals Clarks Reid Newport Cognac Leather,Nike Classic Cortez Womens White/Black/White Running Shoes V89077Womens Sandals Clarks Leisa Broach Brown,, via a loyalty point system.

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Family ties

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

Womens Boots UGG Classic Cardy Grey 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. 

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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 Sandals Cole Haan Augusta Sandal Black/White Chevron Print,Nike Roshe One Womens Black/White Running Shoes V32483Womens Shoes Cole Haan Bradshaw JWL Pump 45 Black Suede,.  

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 Cole Haan Juliana Ankle Strap Pump 75 Ironstone Suede,Nike Roshe One Womens Midnight Navy/Metallic Blue Dusk/Silver/Blue Running Shoes V65139Womens Shoes Cole Haan Pinch Grand Penny Zinfandel Perf,. 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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