TOKYO -- The more than 5,000 foreigners who are employed by local governments in Japan in positions such as language teachers will no longer be pigeonholed into narrow job categories in a move to better cope with the rising number of overseas residents and visitors to the country.
The Ministry of Justice will soon revise the visa rules that govern the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, or JET, which arranges for foreigners to take such positions as assistant language teachers in schools or translators in government offices throughout the nation .
Under the current system, residency status is determined by one's job. Marketing local goods or translation work requires the humanities specialist and international services visa, while assistant English-language teachers working alongside Japanese colleagues in public schools need instructor status.
These workers are, in principle, not allowed to work in fields outside their status. An assistant teacher, for example, is not allowed to do translation work on free days without receiving additional permission from the immigration bureau -- a time-consuming process. These workers are strictly constrained to where, how and when they work.
The new scheme will bundle these duties under a single, comprehensive residency status without the detailed restrictions found in the old system. This will allow municipalities to use their foreign staff more flexibly for a wider range of tasks.
Japan's growing population of people from outside the country lies behind the change. There were a record 2.49 million foreigners living in Japan as of Jan. 1, a Ministry of Internal Affairs survey shows. Regional economies are also feeling greater ripple effects from tourism-related demand like consumption as more people visit the country.
Providing administrative services to residents from overseas and attracting visitors to Japan are important tasks for localities. The national government will also virtually open its doors to unskilled laborers in April 2019 when it rolls out a new visa status. With the population of residents from abroad likely to increase, municipalities will have to add foreign staff to meet their various needs.
The JET program had over 5,000 participants in 2017 stationed throughout Japan for the first time in 10 years. The project started in the 1980s during trade tensions with the U.S. to foster deeper knowledge about Japan. Local governments initially went along with this mission, but the number of JET staff is growing in response to their needs. Some have even hired foreigners directly.
But localities have found it hard to increase foreign staff due to restrictions imposed by their residency status. Experts on regional revitalization have therefore called for a new residency system to better accommodate these workers. Tokyo has instead decided to make it easier for local governments to hire workers from overseas by expanding the fields they can work in, without creating an entirely new system.