Long closed to immigrants, Japan to allow permanent residency for foreign workers

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Thai workers on a farm in Gunma Prefecture in 2018. An acute labor shortage has put pressure on Japan to open its borders. Photo: REUTERS

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Thai workers on a farm in Gunma Prefecture in 2018. An acute labor shortage has put pressure on Japan to open its borders. Photo: REUTERS

In a big shift for a country that has long been closed to immigrants, Japan plans to allow foreigners in certain worker occupations to stay indefinitely as early as fiscal 2022, a Justice Department official said Thursday.

Under a law that came into force in 2019, visas were issued to a category of “specified skilled workers” in 14 sectors such as agriculture, maintenance and sanitation, but stays were limited to five years for workers in all but the countries and excluding family members Shipbuilding industry.

Corporations cited these restrictions as a reason for their reluctance to end such aid, and the government had tried to ease these restrictions in other areas.

Should the revision take effect, such workers – many from Vietnam and China – would be allowed to extend their visas indefinitely and bring their families with them.

However, senior government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno stressed that such a change would not mean an automatic permanent residence permit, which would require a separate application process.

Immigration has long been a taboo in Japan as many value ethnic homogeneity, but the acute labor shortage in the face of a shrinking and aging population has increased pressure to open borders.

“As the shrinking population becomes a more serious problem and Japan wants to be seen as a good option for foreign workers, it needs to communicate that it has the right structure to welcome them,” said Toshihiro Menju, general manager of the Japan Center think tank for International Exchange, said Reuters.

The 2019 law was supposed to attract around 345,000 “specified professionals” over a five-year period, but intake was around 3,000 per month, according to government figures, before the Covid-19 pandemic sealed the borders.

At the end of 2020, Japan was hosting 1.72 million foreign workers, out of a total population of 125.8 million and only 2.5 percent of the working population.


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