Nike Kobe Bryant Men Coupon_1805 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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It is demanding work, Nike Zoom Elite 8 Mens Total Orange/Ghost Green/Voltage Green/Black Running Shoes V81327,Nike Flyknit Racer Unisex Running Shoe (Men's Sizing) 526628-607Adidas Energy Boost 3 Womens Sun Glow/Halo Pink/Shock Red Running Shoes V79635,.

"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 Springblade Razor Womens White/Metallic Silver/Mid Grey Running Shoes V92587,NIKE FREE 4.0 FLYKNIT Fuchsia Flash/Medium Violet/Polarized BlueAdidas Distancestar Womens Collegian Navy/White/Green Track & Field Shoes V45614,, 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. Nike Air Huarache Womens Pure Platinum/Bright Crimson/Loyal Blue Running Shoes V69753,NIKE FREE 4.0 FLYKNIT Total Orange/Atomic Pink/Hyper Crimson/BlaNike Air Max 1 Ultra Womens Summit White/University Red/White Running Shoes V79524,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Nike Air Max Thea Womens Loyal Blue/Loyal Blue/University Red/White Running Shoes V62351,NIKE AIR ZOOM STRUCTURE 18 Magnet Grey/Black/Hyper Crimson/VoltNike Classic Cortez Womens White/Black/White Running Shoes V89106,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Sandals ECCO Sport FYM Sandal Moon Rock 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 Free 5.0 V4 Womens Black/Cool Grey/Wolf Grey/Anthracite Running Shoes V16080,NIKE FREE 5.0 Titanium/Pure Platinum/VoltNike Roshe One Womens Black/White Running Shoes V32552,, 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, Women's Nike Revolution 2 Wolf Grey/Cool Grey/Digital Pink/Neo Turquoise UK#N5-8794,NIKE FREE TRAINER 5.0 Blue Lagoon/Black/Bright Crimson/WhiteWomen's Nike Free 5.0 TR Fit Wash Deep Royal/Metallic Silver UK#N5-9535,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, New Era NY Pitcher Backpack CP78,NIKE MAGISTA OBRA FG Poison Green/Black/Total Orangeadidas Originals Infant Stan Smith Trainer CP461,. "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. "Kickers Infant Core Kick High Boot CP529,NIKE LUNARTEMPO Blue Lagoon/Black/White/Bright CrimsonNike Junior Air Max 90 Mesh Trainer CP634,."

Womens Sandals GUESS Dola Floral Fabric 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.Nike Junior Air Jordan 7 Retro 'Mulberry' Trainer CP671,NIKE LUNAR HYPERQUICKNESS (TEAM) Gym Red/Bright Crimson/MetallicFlossy Nursery Polka Plimsole CP769,. 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 Naturalizer Mona Black Leather 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, Selected Bowan Shawl Knit CP1855,Nike Zoom Rival Waffle XC Unisex Track Shoe 749350-370Jack & Jones Houston Fleece Short CP2156,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Sandals Naturalizer Donna Nickel Alloy Metallic 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 Shoes Naturalizer Kiara Black/Ginger Snap 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,Reebok Classic Leather Casual Trainer CP4982,Women's Shoe Nike Cortez Ultra BR 833801-300Vans Authentic Decon Leather Trainer CP5092,, 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 Shoes New Balance W870v4 White/Red 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 Shoes adidas Golf Climacool II Running White/Silver Metal/Flash Red,Women's Shoe Nike Free TR 6 833413-142Womens Boots Aerosoles In An Instint Black,.

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 Sandals Aerosoles Scone Dark Blue Patent,Women's Shoe Nike Internationalist Jacquard Premium 807407-300Womens Shoes Aerosoles A2 by Aerosoles Kaleidescope Nude Patent,, 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 ALDO Neria Natural,Women's Shoe Nike Roshe One Hyperfuse BR 833826-001Womens Shoes ALDO Fabriago Bone,.

Family ties

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

Womens Shoes New Balance Classics WL501 Lavender/Red Suede/Ripstop Mesh 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 Anne Klein Lyvia Cognac Synthetic,Women's Shoe Nike Zoom Winflo 3 831562-001Womens Shoes Anne Klein Petrica Grey Palm Print,, 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 Sandals C Label Napoli-21 Black,Nike Flex Experience 4 Boys Toddler Black/White/Bright Crimson Running Shoes V33588Womens Boots Calvin Klein Ettore Black Cow Silk,.  

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 Sandals Calvin Klein Laken Black Leather,Adidas Samba Classic Boys Preschool White/Black Soccer Shoes V86314Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Lina Cocoon Cow Silk,. 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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