In December 2018 the Japanese parliament approved a new immigration law to bring a slew of foreign workers to Japan from April 2019. Japanese industries that are facing pressing labour shortages can now bring foreign workers through a simpler process than the existing limited trainee scheme. What does this new law aim to achieve and what new conundrum does it pose to both the Japanese government and Japanese society?
Previously, workers were paid to provide labour as ‘training’, with salaries kept at lower rates as they had ’trainee’ status and were not ‘adequately skilled’ labourers. The official rationale of the trainee scheme is international development aid through providing opportunities for foreign trainees to learn skills and technologies in Japan and then bring their obtained skills and knowledge back to their own countries.
The limited ‘aid’ nature of this scheme became a nuisance as the labour shortage intensified. The visa duration was capped at three years. In response to the exacerbation of the labour shortage, the government extended durations of stay from three years to five years in 2017. But this system was limited to companies on a whitelist. An additional difficulty is that to renew their trainee visas, workers had to first go home after the three years before then returning to Japan.
Finally, due to the official guise of transferring technologies and skills, it was illegal for trainees to take up lower-skilled jobs. For the food services and convenience store industries that desperately needed more labour, this scheme was unavailable even though they have been agitating for additional labour supply since 2017.
An increasing clamour from these and other industries has necessitated new visa categories to supply much needed additional foreign workers for Japan’s rapidly aging society, particularly before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2025 Osaka Expo.
The new visa has two types: type 1 and type 2. Unlike the trainee scheme, sponsorship between a company and the foreign worker as well as evidence that the worker has passed certified tests are required. This hiring process is, however, more streamlined than the trainee scheme. It is also now available to a wider range of industries confronting serious labour shortages.
Fourteen industries are listed for type 1, including caretaking, food services, construction, building cleaning, food manufacturing, lodging, agriculture, forging, shipbuilding, fishing, automobile repair, industry machinery, electronics and aviation. For type 2 visas only construction and shipbuilding are slated for 2021.
Type 1 holders have five-year maximums with the opportunity for several visa renewals, but are not allowed to bring their families to Japan. Their return to their country of origin is a must, unless they pass an exam to advance to type 2. The type 1 visa is Japan’s neoliberal solution to gain a disposable labour force.
Type 2 visas allow workers to bring their family when certain provisions are satisfied. It also allows them to renew their visas with no time limitations. Type 2 visas have caused controversies both within the ruling party and the opposition party. Opponents argue that this visa is opening the door to settling immigrants in Japan, despite the government’s adamant stance that these workers are only temporary and not ’immigrants’. The bill passed nevertheless and the Japanese government is finalising details for its 2021 enactment.
Even as the government officially denies that the foreign workers are immigrants, the reality is that this scheme is estimated to bring 260,000 to 345,000 workers in a five-year window from April 2019 and these workers will be living in Japan alongside Japanese citizens. In the meantime, social and cultural infrastructure to receive this foreign influx is still under construction.
The Japanese government has a long to-do list. It includes promoting community support for multicultural living and providing multilingual municipal government services. Day-to-day provisions such as medical care, disaster alerts and support, road safety, housing, banking and communication services will also need improvements. Making further Japanese language teaching services available is a priority too.
The list sounds sufficient but the reality is still bleak. These tall orders are to be administered by municipal governments. Their capacity to manage foreign residents’ issues varies and an undeniable gap exists among them. Several municipal governments have pleaded for the central government to shoulder the burden of providing Japanese language education for non-Japanese children because it is simply beyond their capacity.
Sociocultural disadvantages faced by foreign residents tend to subject them to further vulnerabilities, including illegal treatment, absconding, death of trainees and domestic violence towards non-Japanese wives. The first stop for foreign residents to deal with their day-to-day matters is their local municipal government. But currently foreign resident issues are largely handled by appointed not-for-profits or by their part-time employers, which tend to operate on a cost-minimising basis.
Bringing foreign workers to Japan will never be the same as bringing imported resources or goods. This very simple fact is still strategically ignored by Japanese ’non-immigration’ immigration policies. The Japanese government is about to face the timeless challenge of how to handle importing people demanding basic human rights.
Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi is an honorary senior lecturer at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University and an Associate Professor at the College of Global Liberal Arts, Ritsumeikan University. This comment first appeared in East Asia Forum and can be assessed at https://tinyurl.com/y6guy6z4