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Japan ushers in major immigration policy change with revision to boost foreign workforce

Legislators appear tired as a revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act is debated during a plenary session of the House of Councillors shortly after 3 a.m. on Dec. 8, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

TOKYO -- Weary legislators ushered in a major change to Japan's immigration policy in the predawn hours of Dec. 8 as the House of Councillors enacted a bill that will allow foreign workers to engage in unskilled labor to alleviate serious labor shortages in the country.

The bill was passed into law with support from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, its junior coalition partner Komeito, and the opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party). Other opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) had strongly resisted the rush of ruling parties to enact the legislation, citing a lack of sufficient data, among other problems.

The revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, due to come into effect on April 1 next year, outlines two new statuses of residence: a category 1 "specific skills" status of residence valid for five years, and a category 2 status for people to work in jobs requiring special expertise. Holders of the second category could be entitled to long-term stays. Foreign workers currently in the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) who have at least three years' experience will be able to obtain the first status of residence without an examination. The TITP, designed to pass on technical skills to developing countries, has faced criticism over reports of poor working conditions and pay.

Under the revision passed by the upper house, the government is set to accept foreign workers in 14 industrial sectors facing severe labor shortages, including nursing and construction. It predicts that as many as 345,150 foreign workers could be ushered into these industries over the first five years of the system's operation. Introduction of the category 2 status of residence will be delayed for the time being.

As Japan had previously not accepted a large number of unskilled workers from overseas, the revision represents a major policy turnabout for the country.

Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the largest opposition CDP, criticized the government and ruling parties over their rush to enact the legislation. "It is devoid of content, and no data was presented (during Diet deliberations). There were repeated false statements, and they rammed the bill through," he said.

Akira Koike, head of the secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, added, "There is no way of proceeding that could be as bad as this. The Abe administration is becoming unable to provide proper explanations to the public. We want to pursue the administration in future debate."

During the process to enact the bill, opposition legislators submitted censure motions against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Justice Takashi Yamashita over deficiencies with the new system and the haste with which the ruling parties rushed to enact it. The ruling parties, however, maintained that alleviation of worker shortages was required, and rammed the bill through the chamber using their majority.

When Shinichi Yokoyama, chairman of the upper house Judicial Affairs Committee, announced at about 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 8 that the committee would take a vote on the legislation, opposition legislation tried to grab the microphone from him. Yokoyama then called for a show of hands and legislators from the ruling coalition raised their hands in support of the bill in unison.

The bill then went to a plenary session, where upper house President Chuichi Date stated shortly after 4 a.m. that the legislation had been passed.

Opposition parties had argued that deliberations on the bill were insufficient. The upper house Judicial Affairs Committee spent 20 hours and 45 minutes deliberating on the bill. Combined with the time spent in the House of Representatives panel, the total time legislators spent deliberating on the bill reached just 38 hours. Despite the weight the legislation carries, this time is shorter than that spent on a bill to introduce integrated resorts with casinos into Japan.

LDP Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Hiroshi Moriyama nevertheless stated at a news conference on Dec. 8, "We have been facing serious labor shortages both in regional areas and in cities. Questions were also put forward in the budget committees and Diet plenary session, so I think we spent an appropriate amount of time to reach a conclusion."

The government will formulate comprehensive measures on accepting the extra foreign workers before the end of the year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to provide a full explanation to the Diet on the system once government and ministerial decrees relating to the system have been worked out. His promise followed a request from the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tadamori Oshima, that he do so.

(Japanese original by Shuhei Endo and Yusuke Matsukura, Political News Department)

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