Nike Air Jordan 11 Suede Grey White Sneakers  3125793 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.

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VANS AUTHENTIC + PLUS OVERWASH PAISLEY TURQUOISE SKATE SHOES MENS 9.5 WOMENS 11 [T14k3494] 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, VANS BRIGATA MEN US 11 GRAY SNEAKERS 2051 [H88p8014],Nike Jordan Son of Mars Low Black/Grape Ice-White Sneakers 3126588,VANS CLASSIC SLIP-ON BLACK MENS TRAINERS [Y66i2883],, 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, SNEAKERS VANS OLD SKOOL SNAKE MEN EUR 40-44 BLACK SKATEBOARD ANTE [F68q3637],Nike Air Max 90 HYP PRM Mens Blue White Sneakers 3127148,VANS DITSY BANDANA AUTHENTIC PARISIAN NIGHT NAVY WHITE MEN SHOES 4MLJOQ [O13e5743],.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, VANS ERA STAR WARS DARK SIDE STORM TROOPER CAMO MEN'S SIZE 6.5 [E66p1896],Nike Air Max 90 HYP PRM Mens Green Gray Sneakers 3127195,VANS SHOES ,. "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. "SUPREME VANS SK8 HI - BLUE CHECKERED SIZE 9 (M) [R27w3017],Nike Air Max 95 360 Mens All Black Sneakers 3127283,VANS SK8 HI REISSUE CA ITALIAN WEAVE BLACK BURNT ORANGE SIZE 11.5 / S69246.227 [U86t7483],."

Nike Womens Flyknit Zoom Agility Vivid Purple Voltage Green 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.VANS SK8-HI MTE MOUNTAIN EDITION - GLAZED GINGER PLAID [W1r8340],Nike Air Max Tailwind 6 Mens Suede Black Yellow Sports Shoes 3127388,VANS SK8-HI ZIP LX VAULT SUEDE CORIANDER [Y44b4826],. 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 Jordan 3 III Retro Black Bright Crimson Purple,Nike Air Presto 5 Mens Flannelette Black Green 3127852,Nike Air Max 2016 Black White Grey,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

Nike Air Trainer 1 Mid SP The Monotones Vol. 1 Pack Speckle Carbon Fiber Silver Midnight Fog,Nike Air Presto Camouflage Mens Charcoal Gray Blue 3127924,Nike Dunk High Premium SB Flamingo White Hyper Jade,, the government's trainee program has allowed them to hold on to their livelihoods.

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.

SUPERMAN Nike Air Force Ones Women 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 Zoom Huarache 2K4 Game Royal Obsidian,Nike Lunar Hyperdunk X Low 2012 Black/Silver Basketball Shoes 3128102,Nike Lebron 10 X EXT QS Suede Black Mint,, 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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Black Bling Nike Air Max 90 Women's Flyknit Black/White 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,Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Mono Canvas Hi White Monochrome Shoes for Men : NO0368,Nike Free 3.0 V2 Mens Running Shoe White Black Red 3128977,Nike Tennis Classic AC White Shoes for Men : NO0718,, 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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Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Seasonal Metallics Gunmetal / White / Black Shoes for Women : NO1576 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. Vans Brigata Lite TL Khaki Shoes for Men : NO1308,Nike Roshe Printing Mens Weave Bright Green Shoes 3129188,Mercurial Superfly CR7 Vit,.

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. Adidas Originals Nuline W-Black,Nike Lunar Glide +4 Black Red Mens Sneakers 3129536,Converse All Star Platform Plus-Black & Natural,, 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," Converse All Star Lean Ox-All Black,Nike Lunar Blazer SB High Brown Gold Mens Sneakers 3129610,Lacoste White Ramer Lcr2 Canvas-White,.

Family ties

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

Nike Lunartempo 2 Print Gamma Blue/Pink Blast-Vlt-Prsn Vlt Shoes for Women : NO1784 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, Nike Core Motion Tr 2 Mesh-Black & Pink,Nike CTR360 Maestri III TPU FG Shoes Yellow Black White 3129722,Reebok Classic A.Keys Court-White & Green & Grey,, 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. Nike Air Max 90 Ultra 2.0 Flyknit PNCL Women's Shoe Blue TF5542525,Nike Mercurial Vapor IX CR7 FG Cleats Navy Blue Orange Peel 3129935,Nike Air Force 1 07 Women's Shoe Black EU1100351,.  

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, Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 34 Women's Running Shoe Black BD9751248,Nike Mercurial Superfly III TRX FG Black Pink Cristiano Ronaldo 3130079,Nike Air Zoom Condition Chrome Blush Women's Training Shoe Red LI4781785,. 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," Nike Sneakers Women Violet/Light Aqua/Black Model:486,Nike Mercurial Vapor VIII TRX FG Orange Black 3130180,Nike Sneakers Women White/Black Model:741,."

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