Shopping 204022 Nike Roshe Run Women Red Alert Super Rad Green Shoes 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

NIKE AIR ZOOM PEGASUS 33 831352-801,KD7 ELITE Blue Graphite/Bright Citrus/Dove Grey/VoltNIKE FREE SB Gym Red/Bright Crimson/Sail/Black,. Along with a group of Japanese colleagues, they will spend the day moving heavy wooden pilings and pouring concrete for the foundation of a seven-story condominium block. 

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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, NIKELAB X SACAI AIR MAX 90 Obsidian/Black/Obsidian,KD7 EXT Black/SailWomen's Running Shoe Nike Free RN 831509-400,, 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. Women's Shoe Nike Air Max Sequent 719916-403,Men's Artificial-Grass Soccer Cleat Nike Hypervenom Phantom II AG 747490-308Women's Shoe Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 33 (Rostarr) 859892-001,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Women's Shoe Nike Free RN Flyknit 831070-102,LEBRON 12 Merlot/Volt/Pink Pow/Metallic SilverWomen's Shoe Nike LunarEpic Flyknit 818677-600,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes Calvin Klein Giovanna Soft White/Dark Brown Leopard Lizard Print 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 D Rose 6 Boys Toddler White/Grey/Black Basketball Shoes V91572,Men's Baseball Cleat Nike Huarache 2K Filth 749359-610Nike Air Max 90 Boys Preschool Wolf Grey/Dark Purple Dust/White/Total Crimson Running Shoes V97920,, 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, Nike Roshe One Girls Grade School Black/White/Hyper Violet/Volt/Bright Crimson Running Shoes V34827,Men's Basketball Shoe Jordan CP3.IX AE 833909-603Adidas D Rose 5 Boost Mens White/Scarlet/Light Onix/Black Basketball Shoes V94026,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Adidas J Wall Mens Black/Scarlet/White Basketball Shoes V26168,Men's Basketball Shoe Kobe XI Elite 822675-001Adidas Pure Boost Zg Mens Collegate Navy/Mineral Blue Running Shoes V45559,. "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 Supernova Sequence 6 Mens Solar Blue/Black/White Running Shoes V75857,JORDAN FLIGHTFLEX Infrared 23/Wolf Grey/WhiteAdidas X 15.1 Fg/Ag Mens Solar Yellow/Frozen Yellow/Black Soccer Shoes V78162,."

Womens Sandals Clarks Lydie Hala Black Nubuck 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 Air Max Sequent Mens Midnight Navy/Blue Lagoon/Stratus Blue Running Shoes V64685,Men's Basketball Shoe LeBron XIV BHM 860634-100Nike Air Max 95 Mens Bronze/Bamboo/Gum Light Brown/Baroque Brown Running Shoes V42965,. 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

Adidas Vigor 6 Tr Womens Shock Mint/White/Shock Red Running Shoes V74692,Men's Football Cleat Nike Alpha Pro 2 3/4 TD LE 2.0 820280-060Women's Shoe Nike Air Rift Sandal SP White,, 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 Clarks Corabeth Erin Light Grey Suede 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 4.0 Flyknit 2015 Womens Black/Voltage Green/Lucky Green/Sail Running Shoes V30471,Men's Firm-Ground Soccer Cleat Nike Hypervenom Phantom II FG 747213-108Nike Lunarglide 7 Womens Hyper Orange/University Red/Raspberry Red/Black Running Shoes V58943,, 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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Womens Sandals COACH Natasha Anthracite Metallic Tumbled 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,Native Youth Sherpa Lined Parka Jacket CP1453,Men's Nike Shoe Flyknit Lunar 3 698181-013The North Face Quest Insulated Hooded Jacket CP1526,, 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.

Rakuten's push for global talent began in 2009, Original Penguin Dour Aran Knit CP1851,Men's Nike Shoe CJ3 Flyweave Trainer (Lions)725231-476Nike MPT Track & Field Fade Alumni Short CP2184,.

Womens Shoes COACH Remonna Black/Pewter Signature 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. Sik Silk Retro Swim Short CP2338,Men's Nike Shoe Kobe Mentality 2 818952-501Franklin & Marshall Seal Script Fleece Suit CP3614,.

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 Adilette Trefoil Sandals CP3818,Men's Nike Shoe LeBron XIII Low 831925-610Timberland Classic Boat Shoe CP3932,, 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," adidas Originals San Remo Trainer CP4062,Men's Running Shoe Nike Air Max 2017 849559-400adidas Originals Country OG Trainer CP4170,.

Family ties

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

Womens Boots Cole Haan Indiana Tall Boot Waterproof Chestnut Suede 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, Cortica Epic Runner Trainer CP4313,Men's Running Shoe Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 32 Solstice 805938-003Cruyff Santi Mesh Cobra Trainer CP4437,, 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 Hyperfresh Trainer CP4771,Men's Running Shoe Nike LunarEpic Flyknit 818676-005Ralph Lauren Polo Harvey-NE Trainer CP4939,.  

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, Vans Authentic Trainer CP5062,Men's Shoe Air Jordan 10 Retro 310805-404Timberland Womens 6 Inch Premium Boot CP5178,. 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 Sandals adidas Voloomix Sleek LG Black/Zero Metallic,Men's Shoe Air Jordan XXXII Low "Bred" AA1256-001Unisex Shoes adidas Originals Campus 2 Night Flash/White/Night Flash,."

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