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Japan needs to be more aggressive in brain gain game

Focus should be on abilities, not academic and job histories

Benjamin Parrot creates videos related to Japanese culture.

TOKYO -- Japan's government might want to try a little harder to lure foreign talent. Especially now.

In the U.S., perhaps the world's dominant player in the brain gain game, President Donald Trump's protectionist bent has given rise to tougher visa screening for highly skilled professionals.

"A rare mass migration of scientists will occur," said Michinari Hamaguchi, president of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Japan has cast its net, hoping to catch some of the world's brightest minds as they migrate elsewhere. But the net, "highly skilled professional" visa status, is coming in for criticism as being as much of a deterrent as it is an incentive.

This is unfortunate, considering the government has declared that foreign talent coming to Japan will help to drive the country's future economy.

A total of 6,669 people had received "highly skilled professional" status by the end of 2016. The government's goal is to increase the number to 20,000 by 2022.

While some qualified professionals have praised the system for facilitating business activity in the country, others have pointed out problems in the selection process, which focuses on education levels and working experience. The system has even been called unfair.

Japan is focusing on attracting expert researchers and highly skilled engineers. It looks at applicants' academic records, job histories, income and other factors, then uses a scale to translate these achievements into points. Applicants who earn at least 70 points get the special visas.

In April, with the global competition for talent intensifying, the government added new ways for applicants to earn points, hoping to make the road to Japan a bit smoother.

It has also shortened the length of stay needed to obtain permanent residency from five years to one.

Shawn Shih, a 42-year-old from Taiwan, was granted a special visa in April. After working as an engineer in Taiwan, he established a Japanese unit of an internet of things-related equipment company. Shih set his sights on Japan because he believed reforms to the country's electricity system and other deregulation measures would lead to an increase in demand for his companies equipment from rate payers. 

The highly skilled visa makes it easier for holders to do more than one thing; these foreign workers can carry out research and go into business. And holders of these visas may be able to extend their stays in the country for an unlimited number of years.

Zhang Yanzhao, 31, came from China to launch a medical services company using his experience as a medical researcher.

He said the new visa allows researchers to freely conduct a number of businesses in Japan.

Still, the program has its limitations. Its emphases on academic achievements, business background and income make it difficult to sniff out those with potential. Benjamin Parrot, a 36-year-old Frenchman and creator of videos on old Japanese arts, feels inconvenienced by his residency status.

Because Parrot has only recently started his business, it is difficult for him to meet the income threshold needed to renew his residency status.

The government is currently mulling whether to add content creators to the highly skilled professionals program. The thinking is that these creative types could help to promote the government's "Cool Japan" campaign. The more the rest of the world reads manga and watches anime, the more soft power Japan could wield.

The government might make this change in the next fiscal year.

Parrot could then become eligible for highly skilled status and all the perks that come with it. Then again, perhaps not. If the government does add content creators to the program, it will likely admit only those who have graduated from prestigious art schools.

Parrot lacks this distinction. He said that educational background and artistic talent are not linked.

If the evaluation is not merit-based, he said, it will be unfair.

In response to calls for loosening the education, career and income requirements, an official in charge of the matter said it is not that easy. "It is difficult to gain a public consensus on where to draw the line between highly skilled and not so much," the official said.

In other words, the government is groping for a way to implement merit-based screening.

The visas also come with onerous rules that are especially ill-regarded by engineers who want to change jobs or start their own businesses. Highly skilled professionals who have been granted five-year visas and have changed their place of employment must apply for a change in their visa status.

"The procedure is more bothersome than that for normal certificates," said Jenhui Peng, a 35-year-old from Taiwan.


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