Japan had highly restrictive immigration laws to keep out foreign workers. However, its declining and aging population created a serious labor shortage and forced the government to amend its strict immigration laws. The Abe administration has changed these laws in recent years. In 2017 it introduced a fast track program that allowed permanent residency to the skilled workers. On December 8, 2018, it enacted the new Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act that became effective from April 1, 2019. This law proposes a major overhaul of Japan’s immigration policies.
More than 2.73 million foreigners were living in Japan by the end of December 2018. The foreigners living in Japan now account for 2% of its population. The new act introduces new work visa rules for foreign workers. It covers both skilled and semi-skilled immigrant workers. The major changes in the act include:
• Allowing the entry of blue-collar workers
• Offering long term residency to certain groups of foreign workers
• Offering citizenship to foreign workers who fulfill certain eligibility criteria
Japan expects to bring up to 345,000 foreign workers in the next five years after implementing these changes in its immigration policies. Those workers and employees are expected to take jobs in 14 sectors that include construction, agriculture, food, and drink manufacturing, nursing, restaurant, building cleaning, hospitality, fishing, materials, electronics and electrical, industrial machinery, shipbuilding and marine, car maintenance, and aviation.
There are various restrictions that apply to foreign workers under the new work permit visa rules. They have to pass certain technical exams and Japanese language tests. Workers coming to Japan through the Technical Intern Program and staying here for 3 years are exempt from these tests.
There are two visa categories under the new immigration act. The first category covers foreign workers who have certain levels of skills, knowledge or experience related to specific industries. They must fulfill the Japanese language requirement. Non-Japanese applying for a visa under this category can stay in Japan for up to 5 years. They cannot bring their family members during this residency period. They can apply for the second category of visas if they obtain higher levels of specialization and skills during their stay in Japan. Those who are here under the Technical Intern Training can apply for the visa under the first category if they fulfill all its eligibility requirements.
The second category covers those foreign workers who have additional specializations in certain fields. They can extend their stay in Japan by continuously renewing their visa status. It essentially allows them to live in Japan indefinitely. This group of visa holders can bring in their family members to live with them but this specific permission has been postponed until 2021.
To accommodate the new immigration policy changes, the Immigration Bureau of Japan is being restructured. It will be now known as Immigration and Residency Agency. The new laws allow the government to reduce the intake of immigrants if there is an improvement in the labor shortage situation. Foreign workers will receive consultation services and support for the Japanese language education to make it easier for them to live in Japan and adapt to Japanese society. The new system will be reviewed in 2021 to evaluate its effects.
It was rare to hear any other language except Japanese on the streets of Tokyo. Now foreign languages can be heard here frequently. Most of it is due to a large number of tourists visiting Japan. At the same time, Tokyo has become an ethnically diverse city. It is no longer surprising to see the foreigners working at the convenience stores, restaurants and other places.
Compared to other countries, foreign workers are still a small percentage of Japan’s population. It is expected to change in the coming years with the new immigration policy changes and the new generation of Japanese citizens showing greater acceptance of the foreign workers. The local population is shrinking rapidly and the influx of immigrants is expected to solve the labor shortage problems. The new immigration rules will not only lead to more skilled workers, but it will also increase the number of blue-collar workers. Immigrants obtaining permanent residency status can apply for Japanese citizenship after completing their five years of residency. Japan does not have any history of allowing a large number of immigrants so the effects of new immigration policies will be seen only after a few years.