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Gov't takes first step in immigration policy reversal to accept foreign workers

TOKYO -- The Cabinet approved a bill on Nov. 2 to revise existing laws to accept more foreign workers into a labor-strapped Japan, as well as upgrade the Ministry of Justice's immigration bureau to an agency, in what critics call a major shift in the nation's immigration policy.

The government aims to pass the bill through the Diet during the current extraordinary session for the possible implementation of the new system next April. But opposition parties are stepping up their criticism against the measure by calling it "premature." Even some members of the ruling coalition have voiced concerns over the legislation's potential negative impact on jobs for Japanese workers. The bill is expected to face twists and turns as it heads for Diet deliberations.

"As Japan faces acute labor shortages amid an aging population and declining birthrate, introducing new resident statuses to accept more foreign workers is an urgent task," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during a press conference on Nov. 2.

The government aims to draw up comprehensive measures to accept these new laborers by the end of the year, unifying relevant consultation desks at local governments and developing systems for medical institutions to accept more foreign patients.

The Cabinet specifically approved a package to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to establish the new visa statuses for the new foreign workers. Revisions to the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Justice to upgrade the Immigration Bureau of Japan to an "immigration and resident status management agency" also got a green light.

These measures, however, have met with fierce objections from the opposition bloc. One member called it "a shift to a de-facto policy to accept immigrants." Some in the ruling bloc have also expressed concern, saying the bill fails to specify the industries that will accept the new foreigner workers, the number of laborers to be accepted and the potential impact the new policy could have on the domestic job market.

The new residency status comes in two types -- one for foreigners who will work in occupations requiring a certain amount of knowledge and experience and the other for those taking up jobs requiring specialized skills. Holders of the first status can stay in Japan for a maximum of five years total and cannot be accompanied by family members from their home countries. On the other hand, the second status allows holders to renew their period of stay and bring their spouses and children to Japan.

To obtain the new status, an applicant must have a command of the Japanese language at a level which would cause no disruptions in their daily lives and pass an examination proctored by the government ministries and agencies concerned.

Foreign technical trainees who have completed at least three years of on-the-job training will be allowed to obtain the category 1 status without having to sit for an exam. Holders of the category 1 status can be upgraded to category 2, allowing them to bring dependents, once they pass an exam.

Currently, 14 industries are under consideration for receiving foreign workers under the new system, including nursing care and construction. Of them, about five industries, such as construction and car maintenance, are apparently willing to accept foreign workers with category 2 status.

Under the bill for proposed revisions, the industries receiving foreign laborers with the new statuses will be specified in operational guidelines drawn up by the justice minister and other ministers concerned. If sufficient labor has been secured in a certain industry, the minister in charge can request that the justice minister suspend the issuance of resident eligibility certificates for those seeking to work in that sector.

Support for foreign workers with the new residency statuses will be undertaken by their employers, as well as industry groups and other organizations authorized by the head of the new immigration agency.

Licenses for those support organizations will be revoked if they are deemed to lack the aptitude for the job. The head of the immigration agency will instruct and advise businesses on employment contracts and support for their foreign employees after confirming the respective situations at the companies.

A supplementary clause included in the revision bill provides for reviewing the new measures after implementation, which was called for by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department, and Katsuya Takahashi, Political News Department)

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