Japan plans to expand the scope of foreign nationals who can stay permanently, the government said Friday, as the aging nation seeks to loosen its traditionally strict immigration rules to cope with acute labor shortages.
Under a scheme slated for launch in April, foreign nationals who have Japanese-language proficiency will be given a new resident status to work in sectors deemed short of labor, such as nursing, construction and farming. Depending on their skills and experience, their stays can be extended repeatedly with no preset limits.
Japan, known for its cautious stance on immigration, has mainly accepted highly skilled professionals in such fields as medicine, law, education and research to date.
But the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to open the door to blue-collar workers given the prospect of a deeper labor crunch on the back of the rapid aging of the population and a low birth rate.
While repeatedly calling for more women to join the workforce, Abe is also relying on elderly people to work beyond their retirement age and support the world's third-largest economy.
The plan to promote employment of foreign workers, revealed at a meeting of cabinet ministers, still needs legal changes and the government plans to submit relevant legislation to an extraordinary Diet session this fall.
The government plans to create two types of resident status for non-Japanese workers who can work in one of more than 10 sectors in urgent need of more labor.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking at the government meeting, said labor shortages faced by small and medium-sized companies are particularly severe across the country.
"It's urgently needed to create a system to accept a wide range of (foreign) people with a certain amount of expertise and skills who are ready to work immediately," the top government spokesman said.
According to a government outline, the first type of resident status, valid for up to five years, will be given to those with adequate knowledge and experience to work in a specific field. They will not be allowed to bring their family members to Japan in principle.
The second type goes to foreign nationals needed in fields requiring much higher skills. The government does not plan to set a limit on the number of renewals, effectively meaning that people in this category will be given permanent resident status and can bring in family members.
Companies employing such foreign workers need to treat them equally to Japanese citizens in terms of pay, the outline showed. Those who have qualified for the first type of resident status will be able to switch to the other, change jobs in the same industry and live anywhere across Japan.
The government would ensure that incoming workers can assimilate into society and have necessary support before and after their arrival, and in times of emergency situations such as bankruptcies.
The latest overhaul comes as Japan, with a population of about 126 million, grapples with pressing demographic challenges and the tightest labor market in over four decades.
The number of foreign workers in Japan hit a record 1.28 million as of October, the most recent data showed, with Chinese making up the largest portion, ahead of Vietnamese and Filipinos.
The government has gradually loosened its rules on the acceptance of foreign workers over the years, despite its efforts to distance such steps from an immigration policy.
Japan has a program to enable foreign nationals to stay under a government-sponsored technical training program, although critics have taken issue with overtime work and low wages. Students studying in the country can also work part-time if they gain permission from the Immigration Bureau.
The existing list of resident statuses includes care giving, a sector in which labor is in short supply. As Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, the government has moved to accept foreign workers in construction as a temporary measure.