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Indonesian trainees harvest cabbages at a farm in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)
The Big Story

Famous for its resistance to immigration, Japan opens its doors

Number of foreign workers doubles in five years as nation faces labor crisis

MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writer | China

TOKYO -- The Koto area of Tokyo is just waking up when Dang Ngoc Hoang and his four Vietnamese colleagues arrive at the construction site at 6:30. Along with a group of Japanese colleagues, they will spend the day moving heavy wooden pilings and pouring concrete for the foundation of a seven-story condominium block. 

It is demanding work, but the 22-year-old Hoang sees it as a stepping stone toward a white-collar job in Japan, where he has lived for the past two years.

"I've chosen the construction industry because the work involves lots of communication and helps improve my Japanese," Hoang said, in fluent Japanese. He eventually wants to work as a translator in Japan, and hopes that his fiancee will be able to join him there one day.

His employer, Yasutake Maeda of Saiseki Katawaku Kogyo, said trainees like Hoang are indispensable for his company of 32. "Foreign trainees learn faster than Japanese," Maeda said. "They are more serious, more hardworking, and take fewer days off. They are keen to learn and work hard for money. Few young Japanese show such guts these days."

Foreign construction workers like Hoang are becoming a familiar sight in Japan. Like other industries in a rapidly aging Japan, the construction business is desperate for labor. A third of the country's construction workers are 55 or older, with those aged 29 or younger totaling just 11%. As baby boomers retire, the labor shortage -- in construction and in the wider economy -- is bound to become more acute.

Vietnamese trainee Dang Ngoc Hoang works at a building site in Tokyo. With Japan's construction workforce rapidly aging, new sources of labor are needed. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

The demand for construction workers is intensifying before the 2020 Olympics, and Hoang is one of the 274,000 foreign workers in Japan on a government-backed trainee program that has become a back door for foreign unskilled workers who would otherwise not be allowed in. Started in 1993, the program has boomed in recent years -- and is one reason that the number of foreign workers in Japan has nearly quadrupled over the last decade.

Led by an influx of workers from China, Vietnam and the Philippines, Japan is in the midst of a quiet revolution when it comes to immigrant workers. Though the total number of foreign workers in Japan is small compared to the more than 3 million in the U.K. and Germany, it is catching up rapidly -- a remarkable shift for a nation famous for resistance to immigration.

Without fanfare, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has steadily loosened Japan's once tightly controlled visa policy, resulting in an almost doubling of the number of foreign workers in Japan to 1.28 million over the last five years. In its latest move, Abe's government is expected to create a new class of  five-year work permits for unskilled workers in hopes of attracting more than 500,000 new overseas workers by 2025. The new guidelines, to be finalized in June, will ease language requirements for foreign workers in construction, agriculture, elderly care and other sectors that are suffering the most serious labor shortages. It will also be possible for trainees to extend their stay for up to 10 years.

Immigration remains a politically charged issue in Japan, with some in Abe's party warning that allowing more immigrants into the country will cause economic and social problems. So Abe has been left trying to ensure that companies can get the workers they need while also signaling that he is not opening the door to immigrants. "My government has no intention of adopting a so-called immigration policy," Abe said in February.

Yet the total number of foreign residents in Japan has grown 20% in the last three years, reaching 2.6 million in 2017, or 2% of the total population. In Tokyo, one in eight residents who came of age this year were foreigners.

"Anyone wandering around Japan, from Hokkaido to Tokyo to Okinawa, knows that there is growing diversity in schools and the workplace," said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University Japan. "Employers know just how essential [foreign workers] are and this recognition is spreading. Japan is a new immigration destination ... and more is necessary to boost its future economic prospects."

Foreign workers have become a part of everyday life in Japan, yet public debate on immigration remains limited. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

While foreign workers are now part of everyday life in Japan -- making ready-to-eat foods in convenience stores, growing fruits and vegetables on farms and sorting packages for delivery companies -- public debate has been limited. So far discussions have centered around issues such as how many temporary workers should be allowed in and for how many years, rather than the longer-term question of whether Japan needs permanent immigration to cope with a shrinking population. As a result, Abe's position -- despite its apparent contradictions -- has faced no strong pushback from the public or politicians yet.

Many Japanese look at the deep divisions in the West over immigration and conclude that a more open policy should be avoided. Yet the steady relaxation of migration rules has not led to the social fissures seen elsewhere.

"Japan, like all other countries, does have racist problems, but hate crime and hate speech are relatively uncommon and the issue has not been politicized. No party has embraced xenophobia," Kingston said.

With Japan facing its tightest labor market in decades, the business community would like Abe to go further. The unemployment rate stands at 2.5%, the lowest level in 25 years. There are now 1.59 jobs for every job seeker, the highest ratio since 1974.

Given Japan's demographics -- it is the world's oldest advanced economy -- the labor shortage is only going to intensify. The nation's working-age population, defined as those aged between 15 and 64, is expected to decrease more than 40% to 45 million over the next 50 years. By contrast, those aged 75 or older, dubbed the "super-elderly," are projected to make up more than a quarter of the population.

Cabbages and car parts

No industry is feeling the effect of aging more than the farm sector, where the average worker is 67, and 60% are 65 or older. Most of their children have left for the city in search of better-paying office work.

For many in Ibaraki, the nation's second-largest farming prefecture, the government's trainee program has allowed them to hold on to their livelihoods.

Among them is Kota Hirohara, 56, who raises cabbages on his small farm. On a recent May day, two Indonesian trainees were harvesting Hirohara's cabbages by hand with large nakiri, or vegetable knives. Hirohara says his farm is not big enough to need an expensive cabbage harvesting machine.

Farruq Fahlevi, left, and Muhamad Irvan Gustian, both from Indonesia, work on a farm harvesting cabbages in Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) 

The two men, Muhamad Irvan Gustian and Farruq Fahlevi, both 21, can pick as many as 4,000 cabbages during their eight-hour workday. They also weed the fields, spray insecticide and look after cherry tomatoes in a greenhouse, where the temperature can reach 40 C in summer.

Gustian joined the program because he did not have a job back in Indonesia other than helping with his parents' farm. He speaks basic Japanese, which he picked up watching anime series such as "One Piece" and "Detective Conan."

The farm is in a fairly remote community with little entertainment around, so Gustian has few things to do other than work, study or meet fellow Indonesian trainees in the area. "I have no girlfriend," he said. "I want to do more work." He says he wants to run a big farm in Indonesia one day, perhaps growing rice or coffee.

Though the labor shortages are acute in Japan's rural areas, they are not confined to them. Shigeru, a Subaru parts supplier in the city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, has hired 93 foreign trainees to work among its 1,040 regular Japanese workers.

A Vietnamese worker checks autoparts at a Shigeru plant in Gunma Prefecture. (Photo by Ken Kobyashi)

The workers at Shigeru make instrument panels used in the Outback, Impreza and other models. The company hires Japanese part-timers in response to changes in demand, but Masayoshi Tabata, general manager, says foreign trainees are more dependable. "Part-timers quit when they find better-paying jobs. Trainees stay for three years."

They have no choice: The government's program requires trainees to stay with the same employer for three years. The fact that they have no other place to go can strengthen the hand of the employer -- and in some cases result in abuses, such as unpaid overtime or underpayment, said Kosuke Oie, a lawyer with experience in labor issues facing foreign residents.

Trainees are discouraged from going back to their country before finishing the three-year term or from having a child, and they cannot bring their spouse on the visa.

In the past, the trainee program was marred by recruiting organizations in the countries of origin who charged exorbitant commissions -- sometimes  $10,000 or more, according to Oie -- to trainees, including huge deposits from them in case they quit. The U.S. State Department warned in 2017 that such tactics could contribute to forced labor.

International pressure and media reports led to a law change in November 2017, allowing only certified organizations to participate in the trainee program. Criminal penalties were introduced for mistreatment of workers while a new government agency has been given a legal mandate to conduct random inspections. A whistleblower system has also been created that allows cases of abuse to be reported via email, a telephone hotline or a dedicated website. Most trainees have smartphones with them and have Wi-Fi access in their dormitories.

Fast-track system for tech workers

After Abe's government realized Japan faced an acute shortage of IT workers -- a 2015 estimate put the shortfall at 170,000 -- his administration introduced a fast-track permanent resident visa program for them in 2017.

Internet company Rakuten, based in Tokyo, has been actively recruiting foreign talent. (Photo by Yasunori Okamura)

Japanese industrial leaders such as Toyota are feeling pressure from U.S. technology companies like Google and Uber in the emerging fields of autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, ride-sharing and the internet of things. In these new fields, the flow of ideas -- and people -- is vital.

"It is impossible for Japanese to create a very competitive technology-based company unless we globalize internally, meaning we need to bring the best and brightest from all over the world," said Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, at an in-house seminar last year.

At Rakuten's Japanese headquarters in a Tokyo suburb, a quarter of its roughly 6,000 employees are foreigners. The company hires about 400 engineers every year, of which 70% are non-Japanese, mainly Indians and Chinese.

Rakuten's push for global talent began in 2009, the year after the company opened its e-commerce site in Taiwan in 2008 in its first overseas expansion, and accelerated with the official adoption of English as the company's primary language in 2012.

Foreign students attend a job fair in Tokyo. Japanese companies, including e-commerce player Rakuten, are increasingly looking for international talent. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Mikitani's revelation came during a lunch session with Indian engineers. They were able to talk with him in Japanese after just a few months' stay, leaving a deep impression on the executive.

Amit Agrawal, a 35-year-old engineer from India, is one of those who were hired by Rakuten.

"Most Japanese companies don't accept non-Japanese speakers. Rakuten is one of the companies that accept non-Japanese-speaking people," said Agrawal, who works in a massive open room that is almost entirely filled by foreign workers. His engineering team helps bring together Rakuten's sprawling array of businesses, from banking and e-commerce to travel and mobile phone, via a loyalty point system.

"Rakuten is basically an e-commerce company, but we are moving into other businesses also. I wanted to work in the latest technologies," Agrawal said.

Family ties

But IT workers are an exception. Most others, even skilled workers, face significant hurdles to settling in Japan.

Marliezl Abud, left, and a fellow Philippine worker talk to an elderly woman at a care center in Tokyo. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

One of the biggest difficulties has to do with restrictions on allowing family members to accompany workers -- a move designed to prevent permanent immigration. Though they are starting to loosen for a small number of the most skilled workers, such restrictions may limit Japan's allure as a destination for people with sought-after training. 

Among those whose skills are in great demand is Marliezl Abud, a 33-year-old who has worked for the last seven years at an elderly care facility, Care Port Itabashi.  

Japan faces a serious shortage of workers to look after its rising elderly population. To ease this, it entered economic partnership agreements with the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam that would allow up to 900 caregivers a year to come work in the country for up to four or five years each. 

Abud was able to come to Japan through this program, but the hurdles were high. Only those with a four-year-college degree and a Philippine qualification as a caregiver were accepted. Once in Japan, she also had to pass a local licensing exam to be able to stay beyond the trial period.  

She sends most of her salary to her parents and sisters back in the Philippines. Her younger sister has a daughter who is going on to private school, and Abud's earnings contribute to her niece's education.

Abud felt a crushing homesickness at first. But after she had passed the local exam, she got married in the Philippines and brought her husband to Japan. Abud says she likes Japan because it is safe and the people are hardworking. She likes the shopping, too.

But she and her husband see possible obstacles ahead for their lives in Japan. Her visa allows her husband to work only up to 28 hours a week, which could pose problems if they start a family.

"I want to have a child next year," Abud says. "Our life will become tough if I go on a maternity leave."


A description in the graph titled "Breakdown of foreign workers by origin" has been corrected.

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