Nike Flex Fury Boys Toddler Black/Volt/Flash Lime/White Running Shoes V30245 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 Originals Supercolor Track Top CP3517,Nike Juvenate Womens Deep Royal Blue/White/Emerald Running Shoes V52323Converse Core Fleece Suit CP3592,, 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. Flossy Mens Plimsole CP3796,Nike Roshe One Womens University Red/University Red/Sail Running Shoes V83029Havaianas Brasil Flip Flop CP3840,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. adidas Originals Gazelle Indoor Trainer CP3954,Nike Air Max 90 Mens Squadron Blue/Black/Bright Citrus/Flight Silver Running Shoes V78876adidas Originals Stan Smith Trainer CP3977,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Sandals Sam Edelman Mae Ginger Spice Velour Suede Leather 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 Tubular Runner Trainer CP4021,Nike Lunareclipse + 5 Womens Black/Pure Platinum/White Running Shoes V24556adidas Originals Pharrell Superstar Supershell Trainer CP4137,, 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, Hugo Boss Akeen Trainer CP4471,Nike Wild Trail Womens Anthracite/Vivid Pink/White/Polarized Blue Running Shoes V11195New Balance MRT580 Suede Trainer CP4566,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Nike Zoom Stefan Janoski Canvas Trainer CP4653,Men's Nike Speedlax 4 Anthracite/Volt UK#N5-9633Nike KD VIII 'Hunts Hill Night' Trainer CP4758,. "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 LeBron XIII 'The Akronite Philosophy' Trainer CP4795,Nike Zoom Elite 8 Womens Black/Wolf Grey/Dark Grey/White Running Shoes V38073Nike Lunarestoa 2 Essential Trainer CP4882,."

Womens Shoes Saucony Triumph ISO Purple/Citron/Pink 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.Reebok Furylite Tonal Trainer CP5000,Men's Nike T-Lite XI White/Black/Obsidian UK#N5-9482The North Face Ultra Kilowatt Trainers CP5046,. 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 Boots UGG Jo Chocolate 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, Womens Boots ALDO Isidora Black Suede,Men's Nike Toki Low TXT Print White/Dark Grey/Wolf Grey/Black UK#N5-9477Womens Boots ALDO Frido Black Leather,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Boots UGG Elsa Black Leather 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 Boots UGG Collection Stella Nero 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 Clarks Leisa Bloom Brown Multi Leather,Women's Nike Flex Fury Obsidian/Fuchsia Flash/Mulberry/Fuchsia Glos UK#N5-9216Womens Sandals Clarks Netrix Rose Black 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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Womens Boots Under Armour UA Verge Mid GTX Mechanic Blue/Emerald Sari/Elemental 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 Boots COACH Tara Black/Black,Women's Nike Free 5.0 Pure Platinum/Wolf Grey/Cool Grey/Black UK#N5-9345Womens Sandals COACH Amel Milk Rubber/Milk Black Sig,.

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 COACH Wanda Khaki/Tigerlily 12cm Sig C/Patent,Ellesse Brock Backpack CP48Womens Shoes COACH Kara Black Semi Matte Calf,, 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 Cole Haan Roper Grand Boot Black Suede,Vans Old Skool Backpack CP100Womens Sandals Cole Haan Rossi Wedge Black,.

Family ties

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

Womens Sandals Vaneli Berta Black Mag Patent/Clear Soft Vinyl/Gunmetal Buckle 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 Shoes ECCO Osan Loafer Lava,Converse Infant Chuck Taylor All Star Mono Trainer CP489Womens Shoes ECCO Sport Terracruise Speed Dark Shadow/Dark Shadow/Peppermint,.  

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 GUESS Jiyana Silver Synthetic,adidas Originals Junior Superstar Foundation Trainer CP556Womens Shoes GUESS Aerra Bronze,. 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 Boots Naturalizer Tricia Wide Calf Camel Wide Calf Smooth,adidas Originals Junior Stan Smith Trainer CP584Womens Sandals Naturalizer Edith Black Leather/Gore,."

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