New Balance 996 Women Coupon_1524 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, Nike Lunaracer+ 3 Mens Green Strike/Black/Hyper Orange/White Running Shoes V56427,Men's Weightlifting Shoe Nike Romaleos 3 852933-600Nike Shox Deliver Mens White/White/Metallic Silver/Black Running Shoes V95622,, 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 Anyanda Flex Womens Black/White/Silver Metallic Flip Flops V36202,Nike Men's Shoe Air Force 1 Mid 07 315123-029Adidas Energy Boost 2 Womens Solar Blue/Tech Grey Metallic/Solar Metallic Running Shoes V76194,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Adidas Ultra Boost Womens Sun Glow/Solid Grey/Purple Glow Running Shoes V79681,Men's Turf Soccer Shoe Nike MagistaX Finale II TF 844446-708Adidas Gymbreaker Bounce Trainer Womens Black/Matte Silver/Shock Pink Training Shoes V21643,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes Cole Haan Lena Wedge WP 55mm II Maple Sugar Patent WP 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, Nike Air Max Excellerate Womens Hyper Orange/Pure Platinum/Cool Grey/Black Running Shoes V58693,Men's Turf Soccer Shoe Nike MercurialX Proximo TF 718775-580Nike Air Max 90 Womens Black/Wolf Grey/White Running Shoes V38344,, 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, Men's Nike Vapor Speed Low TD Black/White UK#N5-8761,NIKE AIR FORCE 1 HIGH 07 White/WhiteMen's Nike Mercurial Finale TF Urban Lilac/Bright Mango/Black UK#N5-9487,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Men's Nike SB Check Black/Anthracite 1 UK#N5-9132,Nike Air Max 93 Jade Stone/Black Pine/Fuchsia Flash/Dark DuneWomen's Nike DF Ballistec Advantage White/Light Aqua/Classic Charcoal/Volt UK#N5-9326,. "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. "Women's Nike Golf Lunar Saddle White/Red Violet/Violet Shade UK#N5-9471,Men's Shoe Jordan Eclipse 724010-005Under Armour Ozsee Storm Backpack CP98,."

Womens Sandals ECCO Damara Strap Sandal Birch 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 Infant Stan Smith Trainer CP461,NIKE AIR MAX 90 ULTRA BREATHE White/Light Retro/Lava Glow/Whiteadidas Originals Junior Stan Smith Trainer CP558,. 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 GUESS Plasmas Multi Floral 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, Hawksworth Hawkbit Long Jacket CP1406,Nike Flyknit Racer Unisex Running Shoe 526628-731Pretty Green Corporation Monkey Jacket CP1494,, 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 Boots Naturalizer Jewels Wide Calf Banana Bread 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, Reebok Furylite Graphic Trainer CP4988,NIKE ZOOM SB STEFAN JANOSKI SE Black/White/Gum Light Brown/BlackVans Old Skool Trainer CP5070,.

Womens Shoes Naturalizer Kyndell Sailboat Turquoise Nubuck 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. Moon Boot Womens Monaco Low Boot CP5171,NikeCourt Air Zoom Ultrafly Unisex Tennis Shoe 819692-007Unisex Shoes adidas Adizero TJ/PV Navy/White/Equipment Green,.

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 adidas Galactic Elite Grey/Silver Metallic/Super Pop,Women's Running Shoe Nike Free RN 831509-400Womens Boots Aerosoles High Gear Dark Tan Suede,, 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 Aerosoles A2 by Aerosoles Eyes On You White Fabric,Men's Running Shoe Nike Air Zoom Elite 8 748588-400Womens Shoes Aerosoles Softball Black,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes New Balance WW980 Black 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 ALDO Cherrie Black Leather,Women's Shoe Nike Air Max 90 Premium Jacquard 807298-200Womens Shoes ALDO Carminati Bronze,, 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 Anne Klein AK7Orra Taupe Suede,Women's Shoe Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 33 831356-100Womens Shoes Badgley Mischka Sansa Garnet Red Satin,.  

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 C Label Lychee-1 Silver,Women's Shoe Nike Flyknit Zoom Agility 698616-004Womens Boots Calvin Klein Olena Black Tumbled Leather/Stretch,. 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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