Japan launched on Monday a new visa system to bring in more foreign workers to the country struggling with an acute labor shortage, marking a major policy shift from its traditionally strict immigration rules.
With hundreds of thousands of foreigners estimated to take up blue-collar and other types of jobs, a new immigration agency was established the same day to oversee visa inspections and support the settlement process for such people.
Shoko Sasaki, who heads the Immigration Services Agency which was upgraded from the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau, said at a press conference that assisting the lives of foreigners is particularly "important" and vowed to operate the system effectively.
Foreigners with certain Japanese language and job skills can now apply for a resident status called Specified Skilled Worker No. 1, which grants working rights in 14 sectors, such as construction, farming and nursing care, for up to a total of five years.
Proficient laborers in two sectors -- construction and shipbuilding -- can further extend their stay by earning the Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 status. It allows holders to bring in family members and has no limit on the number of times they can renew their visa.
The government expects up to 345,150 foreigners to acquire the No. 1 type visa over the next five years, with the largest number of 60,000 workers expected to be in the nursing care business.
The first delivery of the visa could possibly be seen from mid-April to applicants who are already in Japan and seek to change their status, according to a senior Justice Ministry official.
The introduction of the system, based on the revised immigration control law enacted in December, represents a major change for the country, which had limited the issuance of working visas to people with professional knowledge and high skills, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers.
While nearly 1.5 million foreigners work in Japan, a large part of the workforce has been holders of permanent residency, students working part-time and trainees under a Japan-sponsored technical internship program, which has been criticized as being a cover for companies to import cheap labor.
But the country is in need of more foreign workers due to a rapidly aging population and low birthrate.
To address fears of exploitation, the Justice Ministry has issued an ordinance requiring employers to pay wages equivalent to or higher than those of Japanese nationals. Their payment should be made directly to the workers' bank accounts so that the records will serve as evidence they are properly paid.
Entities that want to hire foreign workers must clear requirements such as not allowing the involvement of brokers who collect large sums from foreigners seeking to work in Japan.
Accepting companies also need to designate staff in charge of supporting the daily lives of foreign nationals, including helping make arrangements for them to secure accommodation and study the Japanese language.
The government has come up with a 126-point policy package to facilitate the daily lives of foreigners, such as by opening around 100 consultation centers across the country that will provide information and advice on various issues such as on employment, medical services and child-raising in foreign languages.
The government also vowed to enhance multilingual services at hospitals and job-placement offices, as well as making emergency advisories about natural disasters from the government's warning system available in foreign languages.
Steps are to be taken to avoid an excessive concentration of foreign workers in large city areas, where wages are typically higher compared with regional cities.
The government expects many of the applicants of the No. 1 visa to be foreigners who have gone through Japan's technical intern program for at least three years, as they will be able to obtain the status without taking tests.
"It's extremely important not to repeat the problems that have been seen in the technical intern program," Sasaki said at the press conference, apparently referring to cases in which foreigners were found to have been unpaid or have worked under harsh conditions.
As the launch of the immigration agency coincided with the announcement of the name of the new Japanese imperial era to start in May, Sasaki said she hopes the new era will mark the start of a "new society in which Japanese and foreigners will move hand in hand."
For foreigners overseas seeking to apply for the No. 1 visa, the Japanese government is preparing to hold Japanese language proficiency tests in nine countries -- Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Applicants of the No. 2 type do not have to clear a Japanese language proficiency test but their skill levels are confirmed in exams. The status is expected to open up the possibility for its holders to live permanently in Japan.