TOKYO -- With Japan now planning to open its doors to more foreign workers, academics and other observers are beginning to wonder exactly what kind of turn the country is in for -- one that lifts the economy or one that delivers discord.
The cabinet on Friday adopted the basic economic and fiscal policy outline for a new residence permit for overseas workers in five industries suffering severe labor shortages -- including construction, agriculture and elderly care. The program, to begin next fiscal year, is expected to bring in more than 500,000 laborers by around 2025.
Previously, programs designed to help Japan deal with its labor shortage have been limited to technical internships and other short-term initiatives. The latest change opens up Japan to unskilled labor for the first time.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly argued that recent steps to allow more overseas workers in Japan do not constitute an immigration policy. But Friday's outline states that resident permits with no maximum length of stay might be considered, as will permission for family members to stay in Japan.
Daisuke Karakama of Mizuho Bank was among the many experts expressing support, saying an "increase in the working population pushes up potential [economic] growth."
Hiroya Masuda, a former internal affairs minister who now serves as an adviser at the Nomura Research Institute, predicted that "smaller localities will reap significant benefits."
Japan's working-age population, which consists of 15- to 64-year-olds, has been decreasing since 1997. Small and midsize businesses in the country are already dealing with the repercussions, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday. In 2040, Japan's working-age population is expected to have shrunk by another 1.5 million.
It seems that Japan is in need of foreign workers. But Keio University professor Takanobu Nakajima appears unconvinced. "We should look into technological advances and how to tap the underutilized labor pool," he said, urging the government to rethink its approach.
Companies are already taking the technology route.
Hisashi Yamada of the Japan Research Institute said surveys should be conducted to check whether Japan really is running low on workers in given industries. "When large numbers of untrained foreign workers enter the country," Yamada said, "maintaining harmony with the local population becomes a challenge."
Masuda, the Nomura Research adviser, believes companies should improve their treatment of employees to attract more foreigners. "Employers should treat foreign workers the same as they treat their Japanese employees," he said. "In competition for workers across Asia, companies that are not favored by foreigners will be weeded out."
In a similar vein, many foreigners in Japan's technical intern program are disenchanted with employers' unreasonable demands on them.
As far as Japanese losing job opportunities, Mizuho Bank's Karakama said that "if foreigners can handle simpler work, Japanese people may be able to take jobs with more added value."
He called for extensive reforms.