The Japanese government is moving to ease residency requirements for non-native service workers in an effort to deal with an influx of tourists from outside the country.
Japan hosted a record 24.03 million foreign tourists in 2016. That has led to a situation where restaurants, hotels and other businesses are struggling to find multilingual workers. The situation likely will get even worse unless something is done, since Tokyo is looking to boost the tally to 40 million by 2020.
Currently, foreign students in Japan are filling many of the gaps. Some 209,000 of them, 2.3 times the number from five years earlier, were working part-time as of October 2016, the labor ministry says. In the lodging and food service industries, student part-timers make up 56% of non-Japanese workers.
The central government has so far mainly focused on bringing in highly skilled non-native professionals, such as business consultants and researchers. New legislation that would grant permanent residency status to this class in as little as one year is to take effect shortly. However, Japan’s skilled migration program requires applicants to satisfy lofty qualifying standards such as criteria on income, academic background and work history. Critics have said the system excludes too many foreign workers with specialized skills.
A bigger welcome mat
Now the Cabinet Office is looking to create a separate framework that would open the door for foreign talent not recognized as highly skilled professionals. Residency requirements for this class of workers would be eased in designated strategic special zones. This new program is aimed at securing specialists that will remain in-country, a break from the reliance on foreign students who go home after a short while.
Applicable job categories could include interpreters, cooks, sommeliers and clothing designers. Currently, foreigners in these occupations would need 10 years of work experience or college degrees to qualify for residency.
The Cabinet Office will examine business plans involving non-native workers at committees set up in each of 17 strategic zones, which are mainly located in large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. Each zone will pick the specific occupations to be authorized under the program. Applicants passing certification exams here and abroad, as well as those winning awards in international competition, would face relaxed work experience and other requirements.
In one potential scenario, applicants who passed a Japanese proficiency exam in their home country would be able to work at hotels in Japan. Osaka is calling on the central government to relax recruitment rules to make it easier for foreigners in the hospitality, tourism and security industries to work in the country.
The government’s work reform council plans to hold a comprehensive discussion on the intake of foreign workers on Wednesday. Oversight proposals have emerged that would set a specific number of foreign workers that can be accepted into each sector.
Economic growth and ‘Cool Japan’
An easier pathway for foreigners who want to work in Japan is seen as essential in resolving the country’s labor shortage, not to mention in boosting productivity and maintaining economic growth. The recruitment of fashion designers and other foreign workers in similar fields could also help speed the spread of Japanese cultural exports.
However, conservatives are expected to push back against allowing more foreigners to work in Japan. “If the special zones taking in foreigners are successful in areas such as raising employment for Japanese, it would be easier to establish similar intake environments across the rest of the country,” said a strategic zone insider.