One of the Least Immigrant-Friendly Nations Now Wants Them Long-Term

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Japan is making changes to laws to do with foreign workers in response to worker shortages in industries such as agriculture. Pictured, farmworkers harvest wasabi plants at the Daio Wasabi Farm earlier this year, in Azumino, Japan.

Japan is making changes to laws to do with foreign workers in response to worker shortages in industries such as agriculture. Pictured, farmworkers harvest wasabi plants at the Daio Wasabi Farm earlier this year, in Azumino, Japan.


Photo:

Carl Court/Getty Images

TOKYO—Japan said it planned to allow blue-collar immigrant workers with certain skills to work in the country without a time limit, a break with longstanding practice.

It is part of a bill on foreign workers that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government said it intended to pass in Parliament this year and put into effect April 1, 2019, responding to a severe worker shortage in industries such as construction and agriculture.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday that Japan was “aiming to be a country where foreigners will want to work and live.”

Mr. Abe had said earlier this year he wanted to create a new program for foreign workers. But it hadn’t been clear how long those workers would be permitted to stay.

The bill disclosed Friday creates a two-track system: one for lesser-skilled workers who can stay for five years and a second track for those who are judged to have “proficient technical skills.” The latter could stay in Japan indefinitely and bring family members to join them.

Japan has long resisted large-scale immigration, in part out of perception that the cultural fabric of a nation in which most people are of the same ethnic group could fray. The tone of Mr. Abe and business executives has changed as the native-born population declines and employers struggle to find workers.

Still, the issue is sensitive. Mr. Suga, the chief cabinet secretary who serves as the point man for the foreign-worker plan, bristled when asked to reconcile the new plan with Mr. Abe’s frequent pledge not to adopt an “immigration policy.” That has generally been taken to mean that the prime minister doesn’t want to let manual laborers stay in Japan permanently.

“Absolutely nothing has changed,” Mr. Suga said. He said technically proficient blue-collar workers should be considered akin to those in white-collar occupations such as corporate executives and professors, who have long been allowed to stay in Japan indefinitely if an employer needs their skills.

The number of foreign workers nearly doubled over five years to 1.28 million as of October 2017, the most recent data available. Many are students working on the side or blue-collar workers in a program that ostensibly is meant to train people from developing nations but operates in practice as a source of low-wage labor.

Toshihiro Menju, who is managing director of the Japan Center for International Exchange and has studied foreign workers, said he was concerned the new plan might repeat the problems of the training program. Workers in that program have complained of paying thousands of dollars to brokers in their home country to get placed in Japan, only to find abusive employers once they arrived.

Still, Mr. Menju said the new program could help small Japanese manufacturers find long-term immigrants to replace veteran craftspeople nearing retirement. “It is important to have really skilled workers to stay,” he said.

Write to Peter Landers at peter.landers@wsj.com