In a bid to alleviate Japan's serious labor shortage, the Cabinet has approved a package of revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to accept more foreign workers. The new measure could be an historic turning point in Japan's policy toward foreigners, but it is severely lacking in its present form.
The revision is designed to introduce two new residency statuses for foreign workers with certain skills for designated industries. Of the two statuses, "category 1" would allow the holder to stay for up to five years but not to bring family members to Japan. "Category 2" holders, who have proven to have more expertise by passing tests, could renew their visa and live with their spouses and children.
Category 1 status could be obtained without tests by foreign technical trainees in Japan who have completed a maximum of five years of on-the-job training. Such people can work in Japan for up to 10 years as far as they are unaccompanied by family members. Limiting their rights in this way is a focal point of deliberations at the current extraordinary session of the Diet.
Moreover, foreign technical trainees are allegedly subject to long working hours and low pay verging on the illegal. As many as 4,279 trainees went missing during the first half of this year alone. Using the foreign technical trainee program as a basis for the new residency statuses can cause instability.
It is also unclear what level of expertise is required of category 2 residency holders, while it has yet to be determined exactly which industries will be approved to accept foreign workers with these two new statuses. The legal package to accept more foreigners has many features that require clarification.
Foreign workers have their own lives to lead in their local communities. For Japanese citizens to live side by side with them in those communities is one of the government's stated goals in its plan to further open the door to foreign labor. But the legal package does not contain a detailed plan on how to support those workers as members of our society.
Who will be responsible for education to improve their Japanese-language proficiency, a necessary tool for daily life? How will accommodation with proper rent levels be secured? What kind of medical and welfare services will be provided? Many issues regarding the support system remain in need of discussion.
The system's direction will only be presented in December by a panel of relevant government officials and experts, although such measures should really be discussed together with the legal package in the Diet. The government is pushing to accept more foreign workers from April 2019, but devising relevant measures is lagging behind that schedule.
Another question: Who will oversee the support system for foreign workers? The Ministry of Justice is responsible for necessary legal changes, including the upgrading of its Immigration Bureau into an "immigration and residency status management agency." It seems inappropriate for this agency to manage a support system, as its main job -- inherited from the Immigration Bureau -- will be to control immigration, not oversee foreign workers' basic needs.
We have doubts about the central government's stated goal of turning Japanese society into one that is accepting and tolerant of foreigners, as Tokyo has a history of farming out preparations needed to accept non-Japanese residents to local governments.
It was 1990 when the immigration control act was revised to incorporate the "long-term resident" status. This was to accept foreigners of Japanese descent living in countries such as Brazil. As a result, many foreigners have come to manufacturing hubs in the central Japan region of Tokai or the northern Kanto region surrounding Tokyo. As of the end of last year, some 190,000 Brazilians of Japanese descent were living in Japan.
Over the nearly 30 years since the visa status was introduced, the central government has never launched a housing program for the newcomers, and prefectural and municipal governments have offered their own public accommodations. Regarding Japanese-language education -- the most important support category for foreigners -- Tokyo has never presented clear guidelines, and local governments have explored better ways to provide instruction.
One such example is the city of Ota in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, where nearly 5 percent of residents, or over 10,000 people, are foreigners. Children of these foreign residents receive 40 days of "pre-class" sessions in the Japanese language and other academic subjects before entry into the regular public school system. The level and content of Japanese education for foreigners have depended essentially on the awareness and the budget of local governments concerned.
Ota and 14 other cities and towns with many foreign residents across the nation have been cooperating since 2001. The group presented an opinion in July saying that local communities will face confusion, like they did during the initial wave of foreigners of Japanese origin, unless support programs for new foreign residents are introduced along with the open-door policy for foreign workers. The central government should take this advice seriously.
The two new residency statuses often dominate headlines, but foreign residents who will be working outside the new measures should not be ignored.
For example, many foreign students are said to be working beyond the legal limit of 28 hours a week, and some vocational schools are said to be offering cover for workers to come to Japan as students. But it is also true that such people are now pillars of Japan's workplaces.
The Diet should dissect the current situation surrounding foreign workers, carry out thorough discussions, and utilize lessons learned in the process.