Japan has taken a step towards relaxing its strict immigration laws with a new bill that could pave the way for an influx of hundreds of thousands of overseas workers.
The controversial legislation, which opposition parties attempted to block, was pushed through the lower house of parliament by the ruling coalition.
The new bill marks a major shift in Japan’s immigration policy, with visas until now issued only to highly skilled foreigners such as doctors and professors.
However, the new legislation will permit visas for blue-collar workers from overseas for the first time in a bid to counter the nation’s chronic labour shortages, with a focus on sectors such as nursing, hospitality and construction.
The new bill, which the government is hoping the upper house of parliament will enact by December 10, could boost the number of foreign workers in Japan by more than 345,000 within a five-year period, according to Kyodo news agency.
The legislation has triggered intense debate in parliament, with opposition parties citing a string of concerns about how it will be implemented, ranging from capping new arrival figures to ensuring satisfactory working conditions.
The new system would result in two new visa categories – one five-year visa for workers able to speak a certain level of Japanese in 14 understaffed sectors; and a second renewable visa for more skilled workers, who will also be able to bring their families.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is acting to tackle labour shortages CREDIT: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP
The government has pushed the new legislation through quickly as it hopes to launch it by next April, as part of its wider efforts to tackle labour shortages caused by a rapidly ageing population and shrinking birthrate.
From hotels and farms to construction sites, labour shortages are a chronic issue in Japan, with the problem intensifying in recent years due to soaring construction and service demand in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The new bill reflects a softening in Japan’s traditionally restrictive immigration laws. However, resistance remains among some conservatives who fear an influx of foreigners will upset Japan’s finely-tuned social order and increase job competition.