TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party on Tuesday endorsed a controversial visa program to admit more foreign workers, but only on the condition of reviewing the system within a few years, reflecting lingering misgivings within the party.
The Liberal Democratic Party's General Council approved plans to create two visa categories for low- and high-skilled workers. The legislation will be submitted to the Diet following cabinet approval on Friday. Abe's government targets for passage during the current session to kick-start the program next April.
Many LDP members expressed concerns about what they see as in effect an immigration policy during an internal debate even as sectors facing severe labor shortages pleaded with the government to bring in more workers. Those skeptics demanded a review provision in the legislation to assess the program after its launch, citing a possible increase in crime and the challenge of handling increased arrivals.
"We will include a clause promising a review, probably three years after implementation," Katsunobu Kato, the General Council chief, told reporters after the meeting.
Kato will now work with the LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida to finalize the review clause and have it reflected in the legislation.
"Employment of the Japanese people and public insurance programs [for foreigners] are lingering concerns," General Council member Keiji Furuya said.
"We endorsed the program on condition that those concerns are addressed," Furuya said.
The new program would create two residency statuses: one for those who would engage in relatively simple tasks and would be allowed to stay in Japan for a total of five years, and the other for workers with higher skill levels who could bring their families and extend their stays. The second category has drawn criticism as an immigration policy that paves the way for permanent residency.
The program would cover 14 sectors facing severe labor shortages, including agriculture, nursing care and construction.
"It is only for the industries truly in need of workers," Abe said in a lower house plenary session Tuesday, responding to a question from an opposition party leader.
"The program will allow Japan to accept more work-ready foreigners with specialized knowledge and skills above certain levels through work visas," the prime minister said.
Even as lawmakers express reservations, the public seems receptive. In a recent Nikkei opinion poll, 54% of respondents said they are in favor of the program, with 54% also supporting giving the workers permanent residency status.
The government and the ruling parties plan to have Abe explain the gist of the proposal in the lower house on Nov. 8.
Opposition parties have promised an all-out fight to block the legislation. If the session comes to a stall, the prospects of passage before the session's end on Dec. 10 become uncertain.