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Japan Immigration

Japan looks at ways to help foreign workers thrive

Help desk to deal with medical appointments, the housing hunt and language learning

Vietnamese technical interns at a construction site in Tokyo. Those who finish the program could stay in the country for another five years under a type of work permit to be launched in April. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) 

TOKYO -- As Japan prepares to open its doors wider for foreign workers next April, the government is working to identify potential challenges they may face and draw up detailed solutions by the end of this year.

The hope is to aid these foreigners in integrating into society. One idea entails setting up a multilingual help desk for such tasks as booking a doctor's appointment and finding a place to live, as well as learning Japanese.

Japan faces a decline in its working-age population, which has disproportionately affected companies outside big cities and smaller businesses in general. To prevent this trend from dragging down the economy, the government is setting up a new class of work permits for foreigners.

The category will let workers with a certain set of job skills and Japanese-language proficiency, as well as those who complete a separate technical intern trainee program, be employed in Japan for up to five years.

A committee on the subject set up by the Cabinet Office and relevant ministries held its first meeting Thursday, with the Japan Business Federation, the country's biggest business lobby, and the Japan Trade Union Confederation, the umbrella group for the country's unions, also participating. The goal is to examine the situation from both the employers' and employees' perspective.

For example, workers who speak limited Japanese may have problems opening a bank account, which in turn could prevent them from receiving their salary. The government intends to take measures to ensure they get paid regardless of whether they have a bank account. The committee also will push the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to issue guidance to companies found to be violating labor laws.

Another concern is that some workers could abuse the permit. The government is looking to keep better track of their status, including the specific job and industry they are working in at the time. It also intends to check whether they have public insurance, and urge them and their employers to sign up if they do not.

The government wants to start comparing records from the Justice Ministry, which oversees the Immigration Bureau, with information provided by employers to the labor ministry. If they do not match, the government will contact the company to verify whether the worker in question is still employed there.

"There needs to be proper assistance to the workers' families and children," said Hiroya Masuda, a former minister of internal affairs and current adviser at Nomura Research Institute. "This requires the resources of the national government, not just of local governments."

Measures to accept more workers from abroad, positioned as the next big step under Abenomics, are led by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. "The government must take a certain level of responsibility to make Japan a country where foreigners want to work and enjoy living," he told reporters Thursday.

Japan is also upgrading the Immigration Bureau to a full-fledged government agency in April and increasing the number of immigration officers to deal with the influx of foreign workers.

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