TOKYO -- After a grueling four-hour debate, a key committee inside Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party signed off on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's proposed new work visa program, which would offer more generous stays to qualified foreign workers.
But the strong opposition expressed from lawmakers exposed how sensitive the topic of opening up the country is. While the approval by the judicial affairs division pushes the program one step further on its way to becoming law, the hot-button issue is expected to face further hurdles as it moves to the LDP's General Council and ultimately in parliament.
"We have people here in Japan who want to be employed as regular salaried workers but can't," said one critical lawmaker during the meeting. "This puts the cart before the horse," the member argued.
"Can we really say these workers are not immigrants?" asked another.
Drawing the most controversy was the creation of a new visa category called "specific skills type 2." Awarded to those with especially advanced skills, the status would allow the foreign worker to be accompanied by family and opens the door for extended stays beyond the initial five years. Unskilled workers would be allowed to remain for only five years.
Conservative lawmakers opposed the skilled-worker visa, saying it would be a backdoor policy for expanding permanent residency.
Speaking to the Diet Monday before the LDP meeting, Abe disputed such a characterization of his pet program. "I am not planning to take up any so-called immigration policy," he said.
"I am not planning an agenda that would accept without time limits foreigners and family members at a certain percentage of the Japanese population," Abe said.
The director of the judicial affairs division, Gaku Hasegawa, presented at the debate a proposal to toughen requirements to qualify for the skilled-worker visa. But that was not enough to pacify critics.
At 7:40 p.m., about three hours into the discussion, Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita appeared with Hiroshi Moriyama, chairperson of the LDP's Diet Affairs Committee -- even though it is exceedingly rare for the party's chief legislative strategist to take a seat at a judicial affairs division hearing over a proposed bill.
Yamashita lent his political capital to the visa proposal, vowing that it "will be integrated firmly with ministerial ordinances," and will be made into "a good law." The resolution won the approval of the division after 8 p.m.
"There is nobody in the party who is dissatisfied with the debate," Hasegawa told reporters after the meeting. "We've gained acceptance of the resolution's passage."
The visa proposal will now go to the LDP's General Council, which will vote on it Wednesday. To be approved in parliament before the extraordinary legislative session closes on Dec. 10, the political calendar suggests that Abe would need to receive cabinet approval on Friday, then deliver the bill for deliberation to the Diet by Nov. 8.
The judicial affairs division had been debating the new visa rules since Oct. 22. As concerns mounted from members, the number of participants steadily increased as well.
"This will be a social experiment without a rehearsal, if we are not careful," said one lawmaker.
"It risks dividing the people," the member said.
Fears of a political backlash also came to the fore. "If voters interpret this as the LDP changing course and accepting immigrants, the party will lose support. It will affect the upper house elections" next July, said another skeptic.
Opposition lawmakers have also expressed skepticism about the pending legislation, clouding the passage in parliament.
Abe's government plans to launch the new visa program next April, during the run-up to the upper house election. But one critic asked, "Is there an imperative reason for the date?"