TOKYO -- Skilled workers that come to Japan will be eligible for a new type of visa that can be renewed indefinitely -- and thus essentially confers permanent residency -- as the nation races to relieve chronic labor shortages.
The government will create a two-tier visa status for foreign workers next April, according to Ministry of Justice drafts of relevant bills and government guidelines. The ministry will submit legislative revisions to parliament during the session convening this month.
The new framework will be created for workers with "skills requiring a certain degree of knowledge or experience."
Workers who pass skills and language tests, as well as technical interns who remain in training for at least three years, will be eligible for the first level of the new status. This will let them stay in the country for five years, though they cannot be accompanied by family members.
Those who exhibit greater proficiency by passing more advanced exams can qualify for the second level, letting them bring spouses and children. The ministry envisions this status initially lasting five years, with no limit on the number of extensions.
"We'll differentiate it from permanent residency by requiring a review at renewal time of [the applicant's] skills and employment status during the residency period," a senior Justice Ministry official said. Workers could apply for permanent residency after staying in Japan for 10 years.
"We must balance management of and coexistence with" foreign workers, Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita told Nikkei on Thursday.
Foreigners with advanced skills, education or work experience can already apply for a "highly skilled professional" visa under the current system, but the requirements are considered difficult to meet.
The new visa status is intended to supplement, not replace, domestic labor. It would be limited to industries that remain short-handed even after exhausting efforts to improve productivity and hire Japanese workers. Tokyo sees the list covering a dozen or so fields, including agriculture, nursing, shipbuilding and lodging.
"I hope the purpose and content [of the legislation] will be understood in light of the severe labor shortage," Yamashita said.
The government will manage the system to keep it from worsening domestic unemployment in an economic downturn, for example. If it determines that an eligible industry is no longer suffering from a labor shortage, it will halt visa applications in that field.
Companies or organizations employing workers under these visas would need to meet certain conditions, including paying them at least as much as Japanese employees performing the same work.
The government will draw up plans to support foreign workers in an effort to help them acclimate to Japanese society. This year, it plans to put together a package of measures such as expanded Japanese-language education to encourage more foreign talent to come to the country.
"We have a certain responsibility as a nation to provide support," Yamashita said.
To prevent the new program from encouraging illegal labor, applications will not be accepted from countries that have refused to take back citizens deported from Japan. The government will also limit the number of workers it accepts from nations that appear to be abusing Japan's refugee program.