A revised Japanese immigration law aimed at opening the doors more widely to foreign workers came into force on April 1. The problem, however, is that the government is far from prepared to help these new arrivals adapt to life in Japan.
Policymakers have been trying to make up for the manpower shortage in labor-intensive sectors by bringing in workers from abroad. But unless changes are made, their efforts will continue to fall short.
The country needs better systems and programs to help foreign workers learn the Japanese language, receive medical services and enroll their children in Japanese schools. The government should join hands with prefectural and municipal authorities and take steps to support not only the newcomers but also those already living in Japan, such as people of Japanese descent and those working under the technical internship program.
At the end of 2018, the number of foreign nationals registered as residents of Japan hit a record 2.73 million, or approximately 2% of the total population. The revised immigration law created two new visa categories for people with "specified skills." The change is expected to draw roughly 345,000 workers to Japan in the first five years.
To cope with this influx, Japan urgently needs to nurture a pool of people tasked with helping foreigners deal with practical matters. The central government plans to open one-stop consultation centers at 100 locations nationwide, where foreigners can get the help they need in multiple languages. But local governments have been slow to request subsidies for setting up such facilities, due in part to a shortage of people capable of performing such work.
The personnel staffing such offices must not only possess the requisite language skills, but also have a certain level of knowledge about administrative and legal matters. Local authorities will have to train experts whose sole task is helping foreign residents adapt to and cope with life in Japan.
The country also needs to foster personnel equipped to serve as teachers for Japanese-language and other classes offered in local communities. Additionally, there is a pressing need to increase the number of medical interpreters to ensure that foreign patients can communicate effectively with doctors.
How would Japanese citizens feel if they found themselves in the shoes of those coming to Japan to work? It is with this question in mind that support should be given to help foreign nationals build a solid foundation for life in Japan.
Some foreign nationals of Japanese descent still choose not to enroll their children in Japanese schools. Workers with a higher level of skills -- those who qualify for "type-2" visa status -- can bring family members to live with them in Japan. For these people, receiving adequate educational support for their children can be a major challenge. To ensure that more such children go to school, local authorities could, for example, create a system under which municipal boards of education prepare a list of foreign workers with school-age children and urge those on the list to enroll their children in schools.
Companies that hire foreigners with specified skills are required to provide support in such areas as housing and Japanese language education. Employers, however, are allowed to outsource that support role to private organizations and other registered service providers. The government should provide adequate oversight of employers and their proxy agents to ensure that support is being extended properly.
As for the foreign technical internship program, which will coexist with the new type of residency status for workers with specified skills, a pressing task is to clamp down on wrongdoing by employers. A survey of foreign interns who have fled their jobs, compiled by the Ministry of Justice at the end of March, revealed a great number of new cases in which interns were underpaid or victims of other abuses by employers.
The government should consolidate the internship program with the new system for workers with specified skills. That would improve oversight against wrongdoing by employers and allow better protection of the foreign workers Japan is so desperate to attract.