Japan revamps its immigration system

Buoyed by hopes of higher wages yet burdened by loans, Vietnamese youth will be among those most affected by a new scheme to let in more blue-collar workers that kicks off in April 2019. 


Japan is an island country in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent and stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea in the south.

Japan is the third largest national economy in the world, after the United States and China, in terms of nominal GDP, and the fourth largest national economy in the world, after the United States, China and India, in terms of purchasing power parity.

Japan benefits from a highly skilled and educated workforce; it has among the world's largest proportion of citizens holding a tertiary education degree. Japan is a highly developed country with a very high standard of living and Human Development Index. Its population enjoys the highest life expectancy and third lowest infant mortality rate in the world but is experiencing issues due to an ageing population and low birth-rate.

Japan's population is expected to drop to 95 million by 2050;[265][293] demographers and government planners are currently in a heated debate over how to cope with this problem.[290] Immigration and birth incentives are sometimes suggested as a solution to provide younger workers to support the nation's ageing population.


The technical trainee programme is widely known as a back door for blue-collar labour in immigration-shy Japan. Reported abuses in Japan include low and unpaid wages, excessive hours, violence and sexual harassment. In Vietnam, unscrupulous recruiters and brokers often charge trainees exorbitant fees.

Such problems will persist and could worsen under the new system, aimed at easing a historic labour shortage, according to interviews with activists, academics, unionists and trainees.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative base fears a rise in crime and a threat to the country’s social fabric, has insisted that the new law, enacted in December, does not constitute an “immigration policy.”

The trainees system began in 1993 with the aim of transferring skills to workers from developing countries. But persistent abuses developed early on, experts say.

Those issues were spotlighted last year during debate over the new law.

Among the high-profile cases was that of four companies’ using trainees for decontamination work in areas affected by radiation after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Two firms, also accused of not paying appropriate wages, were banned from employing trainees for five years; the others got warnings from the justice ministry.

A labour ministry survey published in June showed more than 70 percent of trainee employers had violated labour rules, with excessive hours and safety problems most common. That compared to 66 percent for employers overall.

The Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT), a watchdog group, was set up in 2017. This month, it issued a reminder to employers that trainees are covered by Japanese labour law. It specifically banned unfair treatment of pregnant workers.

Harsh conditions led more than 7,000 trainees to quit in 2017, experts say, many lured by shady brokers promising fake documentation and higher-paying jobs. Almost half were from Vietnam.

The new law will allow about 345,000 blue-collar workers to enter Japan over five years in 14 sectors such as construction and nursing care, which face acute labour shortages. One category of “specified skilled workers” can stay up to five years but cannot bring families.

The second category of visas - currently limited to the construction and shipbuilding industries - allows workers to bring families and be eligible to stay longer.

Another worrying issue is the Japanese society’s reluctance to integrate foreign nationals. Japan accepts an average flow of 9,500 new Japanese citizens by naturalization per year. According to the UNHCR, in 2012 Japan accepted just 18 refugees for resettlement, while the United States took in 76,000.


Our assessment is that Japan’s declining population is in dire need for immigrants but the closed-in nature of the Japanese society prevents a complete and smooth integration of foreign workers. We believe that Japan is running out of options and the expansion of its economically dependent population will force it to take drastic steps.


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