Nike Unisex Running Shoe Zoom Streak LT 2 599532-035 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, Native Youth Duffle Coat CP1451,Adidas Vigor 6 Tr Womens Shock Mint/White/Shock Red Running Shoes V74692Selected Talon Trench Jacket CP1515,, 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. Condemned Nation Triple Knitted Cardigan CP1788,Adidas Ultra Boost Womens Shock Pink/Night Navy/Halo Running Shoes V74740Asylum Wireless Denim Ripped Short CP2085,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. EA7 Core Training Fleece Short CP2119,Adidas Supernova Sequence 6 Womens Bahia Pink/White/Black Running Shoes V11654UCLA Stencil Fleece Short CP2211,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes Reebok Daily Cushion 3.0 RS White/California Blue 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, Oiler & Boiler Tuckernuck Shortie Swimmer Short CP2327,Adidas Supernova Sequence Boost 8 Womens Black/Bright Cyan Running Shoes V14710Ellesse Fonda Poly Track Top CP3566,, 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 Originals Busenitz Trainer CP4041,Adidas Barricade V Classic Womens Midnight Indigo/White/Silver Metallic Tennis Shoes V64554adidas Originals Gazelle OG Trainer CP4117,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Asics Gel-Lyte III 25th Anniversary Trainer CP4211,Adidas Gymbreaker Bounce Trainer Womens Collegiate Navy/Mineral Blue/Shock Pink Training Shoes V4568Converse Star Player Wax Tech Ox Trainer CP4280,. "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. "adidas Originals Adi Sun Flip Flop CP3814,Nike Air Huarache Run Ultra Womens Bright Mango/White Running Shoes V42398Ellesse Pavia Cup Trainer CP4441,."

Womens Shoes Rocket Dog Parton Navy Kyoto 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.Le Coq Sportif R 1400 Flowers Trainer CP4537,Adidas Volley Team 3 Womens Black/Silver Metallic/Dark Grey Volleyball Shoes V26695Nike Zoom Stefan Janoski Canvas Trainer CP4618,. 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

Under Armour SpeedForm Apollo Vent Trainers CP5054,Nike Air Max Tailwind 8 Womens Racer Blue/Chalk Blue/Hyper Orange/Black Running Shoes V70883Y3 Boost QR Knit Trainer CP5122,, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

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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 Shoes Sam Edelman Allison Classic Nude 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 Shoes adidas Golf adiZERO Sport II Solar Blue/Running White/Glow Orange,Nike Air Max 90 Womens Pure Platinum/Gym Red/Total Crimson Running Shoes V69944Womens Boots Aerosoles Make A Wish Dark Brown Leather,, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

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Womens Shoes Saucony Grid Momentum White/Grey 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 Superga 2750 Cracked LEAW White 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.

Rakuten's push for global talent began in 2009, Womens Boots CARLOS by Carlos Santana Galina Titanium,Nike Free 5.0 2015 Womens White/Black Running Shoes V87071Womens Boots Clarks Lucette Drama Black Leather,.

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Mikitani's revelation came during a lunch session with Indian engineers. Womens Sandals Clarks Petrina Rhea Off White,Nike Roshe One Womens Green/Radiant Emerald/Light Bone Running Shoes V56478Womens Sandals Clarks Breeze Mila White,.

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 Clarks Charron Myrtle Black Synthetic,Nike Air Max 90 Mens Squadron Blue/Black/Bright Citrus/Flight Silver Running Shoes V78909Womens Shoes Clarks Evianna Dream Black,, via a loyalty point system.

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Family ties

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

Womens Boots UGG Bryce Lodge Leather 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 COACH Low Top Natural/Black Wild Beast,Men's Nike Air Relentless 5 Black/Hyper Orange/Dark Grey/White UK#N5-9085Womens Shoes COACH Smith Orange Wild Beast Haircalf,, 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 Shoes Cole Haan Cambon High Sandal Black,Men's Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Flash Squadron Blue/Blue Lagoon/Green Glow/Reflect Silver UK#N5-9495Womens Shoes Cole Haan Zerogrand Classic Sneaker Light Silver/Black,.  

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 ECCO Touch 15 Scale Bootie Coffee/Espresso,Men's Nike Zoom Hypercross TR2 Black/Cool Grey/White/Metallic Silver UK#N5-9238Womens Sandals ECCO Touch 45 T-Strap Sandal Morillo/Morillo,. 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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