New Balance Men Coupon_1070 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 Pureboost 2 Mens Black/Grey Running Shoes V19312,Men's Shoe Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 92 Premium 844654-004Adidas Adissage 2.0 Mens White/Black/White Slippers V88902,, 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 Barricade 2016 Mens Semi Solar Slime/Black Tennis Shoes V74318,Men's Shoe Air Jordan Retro 8 305381-305Nike Air Max Tailwind 8 Mens Cool Grey/Pure Platinum/White/Black Running Shoes V47490,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Nike Air Max 90 Mens Dark Grey/Dark Grey Running Shoes V50175,Men's Shoe Nike FL-RUE 880994-600Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Mens Light Silver/Ghost Green/Dark Turquoise/Black Running Shoes V62274,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes COACH Lara Peacock Silk Nappa 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 Plus Mens White/Tour Yellow/Photo Blue/Black Running Shoes V94510,Men's Shoe Nike Free Hypervenom 2 747139-800Nike Fs Lite Run 2 Mens Dark Magnet Grey/White/Black Running Shoes V51298,, 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, Adidas Volley Team 3 Womens White/Silver Metallic/Collegiate Navy Volleyball Shoes V94255,Men's Shoe Nike Free Train Versatility 833258-410Nike Air Max 1 Womens Black/Gum Medium Brown Running Shoes V19602,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Womens Pure Platinum/Dark Grey/Black Running Shoes V69860,Men's Shoe Nike Free Trainer 5.0 V6 AMP (Florida State) 723939-706Nike Flex Experience Run 4 Womens Bright Crimson/Atomic Pink/White/White Running Shoes V41674,. "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 Juvenate Womens Pink Blast/White Running Shoes V68933,Men's Shoe Nike Free Trainer V7 898053-002Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 Womens Chalk Blue/Racer Blue/Hyper Orange/Black Running Shoes V43925,."

Womens Shoes Cole Haan Bradshaw Sling 40 Black 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.Men's Nike Vapor Speed Low TD Black/White UK#N5-8761,Men's Shoe Nike HypervenomX Proximo II TF 747484-007Men's Nike Air Max Sequent Midnight Navy/Blue Lagoon/Stratus Blue/Metallic Silver UK#N5-9107,. 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.

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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, Jack & Jones Ben Original SC619 Denim Jean CP867,Men's Shoe Nike Roshe Flyknit 677243-013Converse MA1 Full Zip Hooded Top CP998,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Sandals ECCO Sport Cruise Thong Sandal Coral/Poppy 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 ECCO Baltimore Peep Toe Black/Black 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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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. Ralph Lauren Polo Hanford Nylon Trainer CP4933,Nen's nike KOBE X 705317-308Supra Owen Trainer CP5035,, 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," Dr. Martens Womens 1460 8-Eye Boot CP5147,NIKE AIR MAX 1 ULTRA MOIRE Game University Red/White/UniversityWomens Shoes adidas Fresh Bounce Famous White/Black,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes GUESS Espie Gray Suede 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 adidas Originals SL Loop Racer W Ash Pink/Dust Pink/White,NIKE AIR MAX 2015 White/Black/ClearwaterWomens Boots Aerosoles Outrider Black Fabric,, 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 ALDO Neria Natural,NIKE AIR ZOOM PEGASUS 31 Volt Ice/Volt/Antarctica/BlackWomens Shoes ALDO Smolin Cheetah Print,.  

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 Anne Klein Fedya Black Leather,NIKE FLYKNIT AIR MAX BLUE LAGOON/BLACK-BRGHT CRMSNWomens Shoes Anne Klein Frisca Black Suede,. 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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