KASHIWA, Japan — Vexed by labor shortages in their rapidly aging country, lawmakers relaxed Japan’s long-standing insularity early Saturday by authorizing a sharp increase in the number of foreign workers.
Under a bill approved by Parliament’s upper house in the early-morning hours, more than a quarter-million visas of five-year duration will be granted to unskilled guest laborers for the first time, starting in 2019.
The measure is a remarkable turn for Japan, surprising neighbors and maybe even itself. A nation that once embraced draconian limits on immigration is now reluctantly moving in the other direction, beckoning foreigners just as anti-immigrant political forces are roiling the West.
The change in Japan, however, is driven largely by economics and demographics. Japan has no other choice for filling jobs in a shrinking workforce that is simply getting too old.
But not everybody is happy about it.
“To accept a lot of immigrants would break down the borders of our singular nation,” said Koichiro Goto, director of a nursing home company in Kashiwa, a suburb of Tokyo.
Still, however reluctantly, people like Goto support the new measure. He is desperate to hire caregivers at Mother’s Garden, a 70-room nursing home where there is a waiting list of 60 would-be residents and want ads hardly ever attract job applicants.
“If we aren’t helped by foreign workers,” he said, “this business would not survive.”
Under the new measure, between 260,000 and 345,000 five-year visas will be made available for workers in 14 sectors suffering severe labor shortages, including caregiving, construction, agriculture and shipbuilding.
The measure also creates a separate visa category for high-skilled workers, who will be allowed to stay for unlimited periods and enjoy greater benefits, including permission to bring their families to Japan.
The change appears to mark a significant turnaround for the right-leaning administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As recently as three years ago, Abe said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that “there are many things that we should do before accepting immigrants.”
The shortage of workers is “an urgent matter,” Abe said during a parliamentary session late last month. The country, he said, needs “foreign workers as soon as possible.”
This article originally appeared in
The New York Times.