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Abe’s Immigration Bill Leaves the Details Blank

SNA (Tokyo) — Japan’s aging population has led to a decline in the workforce and the Abe government has determined that the best solution is to import foreign workers, but the administration is remarkably unclear about the specifics of what it is proposing.

It is estimated that Japanese businesses will be short 600,000 workers next year, and that number could reach 1.3 million within five years. The Abe Cabinet approved a bill which plans to bring up to 340,000 foreign workers into Japan over the next five years, including 48,000 in 2019. The government is pushing for the bill to be passed during the ongoing session of the Diet, so they can launch their proposed visa program in April.

In 2017, there were under a million new births in Japan; births were at the lowest rate since counting began in 1899. In contrast, the number of deaths is at a high — 1.3 million people in Japan died in 2017. Japan’s population dropped by nearly 400,000 in just one year. The number of old people is beginning to outweigh the number of young people. There is less money going into pension funds, and fewer people to take care of the elderly. Perhaps most importantly, there are far fewer workers available.

The number of Japanese companies complaining about labor shortages as opposed to having excess staff is at its highest level in nearly three decades. Some companies are taking new measures to find workers or prevent understaffing. This includes recruiting housewives or people who have already retired, and offering less services. Some companies, such as certain McDonald’s locations, are having to discontinue 24-hour service — a drastic move in a country that places so much value on convenience.

The Abe government hopes to alleviate the work shortage by promoting immigration. This will be accomplished through an amendment to immigration law, which will create two new visas. The first applies to those with adequate knowledge and experience in their field, which will be one of fourteen fields selected by the government. This visa will be valid for five years, and will not allow the visa holder to bring their family to Japan. The second type of visa is for those with high-level professional skills. This visa will not have a renewal limit, and will allow the holder to bring their family with them. Both visas require an adequate ability to speak Japanese.

Despite providing an opportunity to work in Japan, the new visas will not make it easier for foreigners to settle in Japan. A current requirement to apply for permanent residency in Japan is five years of domestic working experience. Despite allowing foreigners under both visa categories to work for five years, the Ministry of Justice has determined that this time will not be counted towards eligibility for permanent residency.

The main complaint by opposition parties is that the bill leaves too much to still be determined. Aspects of the bill such as maximum length of residence will be later determined by ministerial ordinances, which opposition parties view as an opportunity for the bill to be heavily altered or manipulated in the future. Additionally, the fourteen fields workers must be in to be eligible for a visa have not been specified in the bill. Opponents to the bill also feel that the bill does not address the strain a significant influx in immigration will put on social services such as healthcare and education.

Despite being far from clear about its true scope, the Abe Cabinet has approved the bill, and debate has begun in the Diet.

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