Making it easier for foreigners to work in Japan

The Japanese Diet has passed a bill allowing more workers from overseas into the country. It will go into effect in April. While many business leaders welcome the move, challenges exist, and critics point out that many questions remain unanswered.

What’s been decided

The law introduces a new visa status for foreign workers divided into 2 categories.

Under the first category, non-Japanese workers that have “certain vocational skills” in specified fields will be allowed to stay in Japan for up to 5 years. They cannot bring their families with them. Under the second, non-Japanese nationals with more advanced skills will be allowed to bring their spouses and children and will be permitted to live in the country indefinitely “if conditions are met.”

The new visa status is expected to open doors for trainees under the current Technical Intern Training Program to stay in the country longer. Trainees who have spent 3 or more years in Japan will be allowed to acquire the first category visa status without taking a test.

Government officials estimate 345,000 workers in 14 industrial sectors including construction and agriculture will be accepted in the following 5 years.

What’s still up in the air

Details are “under consideration” and each ministry will be left to decide what conditions need to be met to fulfill the requirements in acquiring the new visa status as well as permanent residency. And the current estimate of the number of new foreign workers is “temporary.”

Opposition party lawmakers have pointed out that the current Technical Intern Training Program has been abused by some companies to cover up the use of unskilled foreign workers at a cheap cost. But the Abe government has not yet given a clear response on how to correct or punish possible exploitation.

Non-Japanese nationals who are interested in working in Japan should continue to pay attention because a lot is undecided, even after the bill has been passed. For example, the job and language level required to acquire a new visa status is unclear.

Japanese government officials and businesses eager to employ foreign workers have lots of work ahead, because a system that benefits both the workers and the employers needs to be established.

Source: Takuya Hoshino at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute

One of the challenges may be to ensure that workers get the same pay offered to Japanese nationals. Wages in Asian countries have risen in recent years. According to a survey by Takuya Hoshino at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, the minimum wage in Japan was more than 14 times higher than in China in 2005. In 2016, the difference was down to 3.9 times. It is expected to narrow further in the coming years. Workers need to pay travel expenses and language training fees in order to come and adapt to life in Japan. Hoshino points out that Japan may not become a favorite destination for foreign workers if the country cannot offer something attractive, like good pay, or a chance to acquire job and language skills.

Another challenge will be finding ways to make it easier for non-Japanese nationals to work by providing Japanese language lessons. Under the current system, it’s unclear who is responsible for coming up with these programs.

Government officials explain that they will compile a plan on ways to help those workers adapt to life in Japan by the end of the year. But opponents say the plan should have been ready before the lawmakers even started debating the bill.

Experts note that the sudden change in the country’s immigration policy can be explained by the political landscape. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has an important national election and a consumption tax hike coming up in 2019. He needs all the support he can get from the business community, and critics note that he appears to have been in a rush to pass the bill without details to avoid serious debate.

The Japanese government has less than 4 months to tackle the remaining challenges and make the country an even more attractive place to work in.