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Economy

Japan to upgrade immigration bureau to welcome foreign workers

Abe embraces unskilled workers to jump-start economic policy

Filipino trainees at a Tokyo nursing home. Lawmakers are moving to accept more foreign workers to care for senior citizens and prevent a brisk economy from slowing before election season starts.

TOKYO -- Faced with intractable labor shortages, Japan is moving to accept more foreign workers, including unskilled laborers the country has long resisted, with plans to expand its immigration bureau to accommodate more arrivals.

"It is imperative for Japan to create a framework to accept wide-ranging foreign talent that can immediately contribute," the prime minister told cabinet members Tuesday. "The labor shortage is particularly acute among small and midsize businesses."

To that end, Japan needs to create a welcoming environment "that allows foreigners to live as members of society," the prime minister added.

"Creating an immigration agency [as an affiliate of the Justice Ministry] is an option," Minister of Justice Yoko Kamikawa said Tuesday. Necessary revisions to the immigration law will be submitted to the Diet in the fall to set up the agency next year, along with language and other assistance programs. The plan is to start accepting such workers from April.

New infrastructure will also help Japan achieve its goal of welcoming 40 million foreign visitors annually.

Under a new residency program Japan will permit foreign workers who meet certain technical and language requirements to stay up to five years, including low-skilled laborers. The program will cover such fields as construction, agriculture, nursing, shipbuilding and hospitality. Certain manufacturing fields like metal pressing and casting, as well as nonmanufacturing sectors like food service, will also be included.

Abe's conservative base has long resisted bringing in foreign workers. But faced with deepening labor shortages, the prime minister has concluded a policy shift is inevitable. He hopes an expanded labor force will help jump-start his Abenomics economic policy.

Massive monetary easing and aggressive fiscal spending under Abe have invigorated corporate activity. But such programs did nothing to address the lack of workers in rural areas hit by a graying population. The realization that his vaunted economic policy is at stake seems to have forced his hand.

Industry groups that support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been deeply frustrated with the country's labor shortage and have lobbied for a solution. With nationwide local elections and an upper house election coming up next year, the policy shift could help keep those constituents on his side.

"Looking at the current Japan and its future, we're at a stage where we need help outside highly specialized fields," Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, said at a press conference Tuesday, expressing his support for accepting more unskilled workers from abroad.

But there are plenty of issues associated with long-term residency. Those who complete five years of training and renew their visas will live in Japan for 10 years.

"We must assume people will become naturalized and allow them to join in social security programs like pensions," said Takayuki Nishiyama, a professor at Seikei University. "We should allow foreigners to bring their families and offer housing so that those staying for the long term can feel at home."

Yet there have been few serious debates about accepting foreign workers.

"Near-term labor shortages can occur in various fields, not just a handful of specialized industries," said Takanobu Nakajima, a professor at Keio University. "We should avoid the easy solution of relying on foreigners."

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