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Editorial: Abolish problem-laden technical trainee program

Japan should be an open country. It is rational for us to accept foreign workers willing to take up jobs here when there are corresponding demands for them exist. Yet making this arrangement sustainable requires a well-planned system.

The Diet is entering its final phase of deliberations on revising the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to accept more foreigners to alleviate the country's labor shortage -- a major turnaround in Japan's policy toward foreigners. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling coalition snapped short discussions on a bill to revise the law in the House of Representatives, and rammed the legislation through the chamber on Nov. 27. They intend to pass the bill through the House of Councillors into law by the end of this week.

The main pillar of the bill is the creation of new residency statuses for foreigners with "specific skills" who can be accepted in industries suffering from lack of workers. But the focus of Diet deliberations so far has been the Technical Intern Training Program, which was introduced in 1993. This is because the government expects some 260,000 trainees to obtain the new statuses and continue to work in Japan.

--- False premises causing contradictions

Reports abound that technical trainees have been forced to work with low pay and in terrible conditions, ostensibly to transfer technological expertise from Japan to developing countries. Despite the tough conditions, they have managed to learn the Japanese language and obtain skills in a matter of a few years of staying in this country.

Rather than sending them home upon completing their training courses, the Japanese government wants to keep them in Japan for at least another five years by encouraging them to change their residency status. This is the core concept of the new system, which is being built on a shaky foundation. It is no wonder that the foundation -- the technical trainee program -- has come under rigorous debate.

The government, however, continues to insist that the technical trainee program has no links to the immigration law changes introducing the new residency statuses. At the same time, it has eagerly defended the trainee program, which is nevertheless rife with problems, and pretended that the new immigration program is something different from the trainee system, even though they share the same roots. These two attitudes come from a premise that is not in step with reality -- namely, the immigration policy that foreign workers must not engage in mere menial labor.

Officially, Japan has only allowed foreigners with special expertise, including medical doctors or university professors, or spouses of Japanese nationals, to work in the country. It says removing this cap "will cause deterioration in public security," or "will not be accepted by the people of Japan." In other words, the government's formal position has been to bar non-experts or those doing simple labor from entering the country for work.

In reality, however, foreign students working at convenience stores in cities, and trainees sweating along production lines at factories in depopulated regional communities, are in both cases workers doing simple labor -- and Japan needs them. Calling them workers with "specific skills" is just an excuse to insist that they are not simple laborers.

We should stop adding new contradictions to already contradictory practices. We propose that Japan create a single "regular worker" residency status covering foreign workers with no expertise.

The trainee program should be abolished in phases over several years, and trainees should be admitted as entry-level or intermediate-level "regular workers." At the same time, the government needs to crack down on malicious job placement companies or employers forcing harsh working conditions on their foreign employees. Getting rid of the false premises will make the system much healthier.

Reviewing the distorted immigration system must go hand in hand with a social integration policy for foreign workers that recognizes them as members of Japanese society and supports their daily lives.

--- Guaranteeing Japanese language education

As flesh-and-blood human beings, foreign workers need guaranteed access to inexpensive housing and medical care to live and work safely. They are also required to learn local customs and rules for neighborhood associations in their communities. Educating the Japanese people around them is of vital necessity, too.

Among such supportive programs, Japanese-language courses bear particular importance. Foreign workers without the command of the simplest daily phrases would become isolated in the communities they live in.

Therefore, a public system to guarantee a certain amount of Japanese-language education for foreign workers should therefore be introduced at an early date. A multiparty group of lawmakers is proposing a law to promote Japanese-language education for foreigners, and this should be defined specifically as legislation for foreign workers.

However, the government-sponsored bill to revise the immigration law completely lacks programs of such a nature. We are appalled by the Justice Ministry's irresponsible attitude that it will put together such programs after the bill is passed into law, based on the opinions of experts.

The new immigration system will require the government officials involved to process massive workloads. The current arrangement to expand the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau of Japan into a leading immigration control and residency management agency needs a complete overhaul. The agency has its roots in the management of foreign residents in Japan, and having it play various new roles, including supporting foreigners, is beyond its current capacity.

Failure to smoothly integrate foreigners as workers and members of local communities will only result in an increase in residents staying in Japan illegally, in the shadows of society. Cracking down on them, or addressing conflict between them and local communities, would inflict substantial social costs on Japan.

The Diet must face the problems of the government-proposed bill and make fundamental amendments so that the upcoming policy change will not leave serious trouble for future generations to deal with.

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