EUGENE LANG, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — Japan is considering letting foreign nationals working in farming, food service and other sectors remain in the country indefinitely as soon as next fiscal year, sources familiar with the matter said, a significant turning point for a country that has long kept its borders mostly closed to immigrants.
Permanent residency is now generally granted only to people in certain specialty occupations, such as engineers. But as Japan faces a labor shortage amid a rapidly aging population, officials are reconsidering this stance.
Allowing permanent residency for a wider group of people would represent a major shift in Japan’s immigration policy, said Toshihiro Menju, managing director at the Japan Center for International Exchange.
Under the existing program created in 2019 to fill 14 understaffed sectors, including manufacturing and janitorial work, foreign nationals with experience but without special training are permitted to work in Japan for up to five years. They are not allowed to bring their families.
In another category, those who have shown to be skilled laborers may renew their visas indefinitely and bring their families, as long as they do not have criminal records. But this category is reserved only for two of the 14 sectors with consistent labor shortages — construction and shipbuilding.
Now Japan will open this more privileged category to the rest of the 14 sectors, effectively eliminating the five-year cap. Those who have lived in Japan for 10 years will also meet a requirement for obtaining permanent residency.
Japan has long maintained strict immigration policies. The country had 1.72 million foreign workers in October 2020, according to government data. About 35,000 were staying under the program to address worker shortages as of August. Other programs for foreign nationals include a training scheme where people acquire skills in Japan and return to their home countries.
The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called for expanding immigration eligibility, saying last year that “interest in tapping foreign personnel is strong, as are expectations for them.”
Details of the policy change are expected to be ironed out between ministries and the prime minister’s office as well as lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The process may be lengthy given strong opposition among conservative members against loosening the immigration policy. The move to allow families of workers enter the country during the coronavirus pandemic will also fuel concerns.
When the program to address the labor shortages of the 14 sectors was introduced, the Immigration Services Agency anticipated that Japan would have a shortfall of 345,000 workers by fiscal 2023. Some 3,000 people are obtaining a visa under this program a month, and a simple computation shows that, with the absence of the stay maximum, their tally would be on track to reach roughly 300,000 in the late 2020s.