Women's Shoe Nike Free TR 6 833413-003 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, Jack & Jones Milan Sweat Short CP2150,Nike Air Zoom Odyssey Womens White/Dark Grey/Pure Platinum/Black Running Shoes V91002UCLA Wiggins Fleece Short CP2213,, 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. Jack & Jones Malibu Swim Short CP2319,Nike Air Max Thea Womens White/Black/White Running Shoes V89021EA7 Train Core Track Suit CP3593,. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. Clarks Originals Desert Aerial Boot CP3737,Nike Air Zoom Structure 19 Womens Cool Grey/Fuchsia Flash/Copa/Black Running Shoes V46893Timberland Splitrock 2 Boot CP3782,. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Womens Shoes Rocket Dog Sparkley Black Time Travel 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, Drome Neoprene Penny Loafer CP3906,Nike Flex Fury Womens Vivid Purple/Copa/Blue Lagoon/Black Running Shoes V85053adidas Originals Stan Smith Trainer CP3952,, 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, Creative Recreation Cesario Low XVI Woven Trainer CP4318,Nike Flex Fury 2 Womens Black/Hyper Pink/Anthracite/Metallic Hematite Running Shoes V20954Cruyff Conductor Trainer CP4412,.

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Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, Hugo Boss Futesio Trainer CP4488,Nike Free 5.0 2014 Womens Anthracite/Hyper Pink/Black Running Shoes V10996Lacoste Ampthill LCR3 Leather Trainer CP4534,. "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 Air Max 93 Trainer CP4621,Nike Free Rn Flyknit Womens Black/White Running Shoes V32333Nike Roshe NM 'Fleece Pack' Trainer CP4736,."

Womens Shoes Sam Edelman Linda Black Leather 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 Jordan New School Trainer CP4794,Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit 2015 Womens Black/Hyper Orange/Volt/Sail Running Shoes V20836Puma Trinomic Disc Blaze Modern Trainer CP4893,. 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 Shoes Superga 2311 Metallics Graphite 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 Sandals Aerosoles Serenwipity Pink Floral,Nike Lunareclipse + 5 Womens Black/Pure Platinum/White Running Shoes V24860Womens Shoes Aerosoles Solsa Dance White,, 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 Boots UGG Classic Short Rustic Weave Fiesta Blue/Twinface 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.

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Womens Boots UGG Reignfall Liberty Pony Brown 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 Clarks Keesha Luca Navy Patent Leather,Nike Kids Son of Force Black/Black UK#N5-9625Womens Shoes Clarks Haydn Pond Brown Leather,.

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 Boots COACH Sage Black Rubber,Nike Kids Flex Supreme 4 Black/Pink Pow/White UK#N5-9605Womens Sandals COACH Alessa Navy/Navy Rubber/Geo Signature,, 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 Shoes COACH Empire Black Star,Nike SB Kids Toki Low Canvas Black/White UK#N5-9583Womens Boots Cole Haan Adler Tall Boot Chestnut,.

Family ties

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

Womens Slippers UGG Chewbacca Scuffette Wookie 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 Cole Haan Putnam Waterproof Boot Extended Calf Chestnut Suede,Women's Nike Zoom Winflo 2 Flash Noble Purple/Vivid Purple/Copa/Reflect Silver UK#N5-9033Womens Sandals Cole Haan Elsie Slide 40 II Acorn,, 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 Boots ECCO Touch 75 Ankle Bootie Black Cow Nubuck,Women's Nike Free Viritous Deep Royal Blue/Mulberry/Tide Pool Blue/Wolf Grey UK#N5-9160Womens Shoes ECCO Sky Mary Jane Black Leather,.  

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 ECCO Golf Classic Golf Hybrid White/Moon Rock Pebble/Universe,Glorious Gangsta Stamford Backpack CP52Womens Sandals GUESS Patrien Natural Leather,. 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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