Up to 340,000 foreign workers may flow into Japan under new visa system

Kyodo News

Posted at Nov 13 2018 09:18 PM

TOKYO - Between 260,000 and 340,000 foreign workers are estimated to flow into Japan in the five years from next April through an envisioned immigration control law revision aimed at dealing with the country's serious labor crunch, government sources said Tuesday.

The estimate was unofficially made available as opposition parties are criticizing the government for hastily moving ahead to pass the bill to revise the law without disclosing details, such as how many workers would be accepted and in which sectors.

Deliberations on the bill started at the House of Representatives the same day, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying that the government will announce the official estimate "sometime soon."

According to the sources, the government is expecting a labor shortage of around 1.3 million to 1.35 million workers in the five-year period. For the fiscal year from April 2019 alone, it expects to accept about 33,000 to 47,000 foreign workers for an estimated shortage of more than 600,000 laborers.

The government is expected to release the figures on Wednesday.

Abe said at the lower house plenary session that the exact figures are "being examined now" but the estimate will serve as a ceiling for the number of foreign workers to be accepted under the new system unless there is a major change in the economic situation.

The government aims to pass the bill during the ongoing parliamentary session through Dec. 10, with an eye to introducing the new program from April next year.

The bill would create a new visa status for foreign workers in various sectors deemed seriously short of labor, possibly ranging from construction and farming to nursing care.

The system, under certain conditions, could pave the way for foreign workers to live permanently in Japan. It has stirred controversy as being a major policy shift for Japan, which has largely restricted imported labor.

Abe reiterated the government position that the new system is different from an "immigrant policy" -- defining it as an idea to "maintain the country by accepting foreigners and their families indefinitely."

Japan has mainly accepted highly-skilled professionals in such fields as medicine and law, while taking in only a tiny number of refugees. But it is now in need of more foreign laborers due to the rapidly aging population and low birth rate.

Critics have argued that the government is pushing for the legal revision without fully preparing social security and Japanese language education systems.

While concerns are growing that the country's already ballooning social security costs may increase with the surge in the number of foreigners, Abe emphasized that the government has been applying stricter rules for people eligible for the benefits of the health insurance system and "will continue considering taking necessary steps."

Currently, not only foreigners working in Japan but also their dependents, even if they are living overseas, can be covered by the national health insurance system in Japan. But the government is believed to be moving toward narrowing down the coverage to address possible rises in healthcare costs.

The number of foreign workers in Japan hit a record 1.28 million as of October last year, doubling from 680,000 in 2012, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, with Chinese making up the largest group of around 370,000, followed by Vietnamese and Filipinos.