Nike Kids Air Jordan 11 White Concord Sneakers  3125557 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, VANS SKATERSCHUH CAMDEN DELUXE BLACK (WASHED) 4J9F1T [Z58r6800],Nike Air Jordan 4 Retro Black-Green/White Orange Sneakers 3126095,SNEAKERS VANS ,, 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. VANS ATWOOD ACTIVE WASHED TWILL BLACK MARSHMALLOW [Z65d3570],Nike Air Jordan 4 Retro White/Metallic Silver Sneakers 3126162,VANS AUTHENTIC CLASSIC VINTAGE PALE KHAKI LOW TOP SHOES SIZE 11 [H71l8768],. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. VANS AUTHENTIC US OPEN SUNSET WHITE MEN'S SIZE: 8.5 [I96c7416],Nike Air Jordan 5 High Black Green Sneakers 3126259,VANS AUTHENTIC MEN US 7 IVORY SKATE SHOE BLEMISH 10100 [S81o9795],. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

NW VANS MENS 10.5 WOMENS 12 AUTHENTIC VAN DOREN TURQUOISE FLAMINGO PINK SNEAKERS [R81f6632] 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 (SUEDE) WINDSOR WINE/PLUS MEN'S CLASSIC SKATE SHOES SIZE 11 [P82o7448],Nike Air Jordan 6 Rings Bred Sneakers 3126345,VANS CHIMA FERGUSON PRO MEN US 11 BLACK SNEAKERS UK 10 EU 44.5 2855 [H41r1231],, 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, VANS OLD SKOOL IRON BROWN TRUE WHITE TRAINERS (SUEDE / CANVAS [H80u5458],Nike Air Max 1 Mens Red White Sneakers 3126900,VANS OTW BEDFORD SKATE MID SHOES ANTI CAMO BLACK RETRO MODERN MENS 9 & 11 [B61o4447],.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, VANS ERA CA (ITALIAN WEAVE/PIG SUEDE) ATLANTIC DEEP TEAL MEN'S SHOES SIZE 9.5 [W89s7979],Nike Air Max Mens Suede Gray Black Sneakers 3126992,VANS ISO PERF + CLASSICS+ NUBUCK BRUSHED NICKEL WHITE [K68d7968],. "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. "MEN VANS SK8-HI NEUAUFLAGE DISTRESSED KARIERT BLACK HOHE TURNSHOES [F6m1337],Nike Air Max KPU Mens All Black Sneakers 3127099,VANS SK8 HI MEN'S SHOES_LX_VN-0VOMDY6 RETRO [R89w6729],."

Nike Womens Free XT Evryday Fit II+ Vivid Grape Grey 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 LITE (LEATHER) BLACK MENS TRAINERS - BLACK [O26u9701],Nike Air Max 90 PRM EM Mens Green Black Casual Shoes 3127167,VANS SK8-HI REISSUE MEN US 10 BLUE SNEAKERS 2459 [I100p5094],. 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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Nike Air Max 1 Ultra Moire White,Nike Air Max 90 PREM TAPE Unisex White Blue Sneakers 3127541,Nike Hypervenom Phelon IC Black Bright Citrus (599810-008),, 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.

Sale This Week Only New To Blingitonyouboutique Women's 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 Free 5.0 Total Orange Black,Nike Air Presto 5 Mens Anti Fur Sneakers Charcoal Grey Blue 3127849,Nike Hyperdunk 2010 WBF Germany Dirk Nowitzki PE,, 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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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 Black Wash StormWind Shoes for Women : NO1596 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 Old Skool Zip Perf Leather True White Shoes for Men : NO1316,Nike Free 3.0 V3 Mens Running Shoe Blue White 3128985,adidas ACE 17.3 Primemesh TF,.

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 New Originals Adria Ps-Blue,Nike Free 5.0+ Mens Running Shoe Green Royal Blue 3129102,Converse All Star Double Zip Leather Hi-Jet Black,, 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 Seasonal Ox-Pink Paper,Nike Free Run+ 3 Mens Running Shoe Royal Blue Golden 3129165,Lacoste Baylen 4-Cognac,.

Family ties

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

Nike Air Max 2016 Print Gamma Blue/White-Ghost Green Shoes for Women : NO1853 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 Air Max Thea Print-Black,Nike Flyknit Trainer Suede Leather Green Mens Sneakers 3129515,Reebok Classic Cl Prince-Solid & Gry & White,, 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 Women's Shoe Black JV4915970,Nike HyperVenom Phantom FG Soccer Cleats Black Midnight Blue Green 3129793,Nike Dunk Low Premium Women's Shoe Bone QM1061921,.  

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, NikeLab Gyakusou Free RN Motion Flyknit 2017 Women's Running Shoe Sail LW1155484,Nike Mercurial Glide III FG GS Black Fluorescent Green 3129874,Nike Free TR 7 Women's Training Shoe Black IX4156233,. 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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