The government on Friday submitted to the Diet a bill to grant work rights to foreign blue-collar laborers in a major policy shift for Japan, which has hitherto largely restricted imported labor.
The bill would create a new visa status to accept foreign workers in various sectors deemed seriously short of labor, ranging from construction and farming to nursing care. The system, under certain conditions, could pave the way for them to live permanently in Japan.
"Labor shortages are starting to become a major factor hampering economic growth. We will create a proper system," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a parliamentary committee.
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.
The government aims to pass the bill to amend the immigration control law in the ongoing parliamentary session through Dec. 10, with an eye to introducing the new program from April next year.
Opposition parties are set to step up their offensive against the government over the bill, which they argue is lacking in detail, including how many workers would be accepted. They also claim the proposed new system will effectively put an end to Japan's tight stance on immigration.
Under the envisioned system, two types of residence status for non-Japanese workers are expected to be created for 14 sectors.
The first type, valid for up to five years, will be given to those with adequate knowledge and experience to work in a specific field. They will not be allowed to bring their family members to Japan, in principle.
The second type will be for foreign nationals needed in fields requiring much higher skills. The government does not plan to set a limit on the number of visa renewals and will allow family members to accompany the workers, opening up the possibility for these people to live permanently in Japan.
The government, however, has argued that the introduction of the new system is not equal to "accepting immigrants indefinitely" and does not mark a policy shift on immigration.
Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita, who oversees the issue, explained in the Diet committee that the government has no intention of setting an upper limit on the number of foreign workers to be accepted under the new system.
In sectors where a labor shortage has been resolved, the justice minister plans to halt the influx of foreign workers.
According to sources close to the matter, the number of foreigners to be granted the new visas could reach hundreds of thousands, most of them likely eligible for the first type of residence status.
The government will use ministerial ordinances to flesh out the details of the system, as issues such as what sectors will need manpower and how much fluctuate over time. But ordinances are not deliberated at the Diet, making it more difficult for the public to assess their appropriateness than legislation.
To help many foreigners adapt to life in Japan, the government plans to come up with measures to offer Japanese language education and consultation services, and ensure that medical institutions are well prepared to accept foreign nationals.
The government is also expected to upgrade the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau into an agency to respond to an expected increase in its workload.
"We want to create a country where foreigners feel that they want to live and work," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Friday.
The top government spokesman guaranteed that foreign workers will be treated equally to Japanese workers engaging in the same jobs in terms of their salaries.
The scheme will be reviewed, if necessary, three years after the legislation comes into force.
Abe is apparently in a hurry to see the bill pass the Diet before the unified local elections in spring next year and the House of Councillors election in the summer.
Coming up with measures to address the labor shortage will not just be welcomed by the business community but will appeal to "voters in local communities, which are in dire need of workers," according to a source in the prime minister's office.
While Japan has taken the stance "of not accepting immigrants," it has become more and more dependent on foreign workers.
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.
In addition to highly skilled professionals, the figure includes those engaged in manual work under a government-sponsored technical training program, which critics describe as a way of importing cheap labor. Students with proper permits can work part-time.
Japan's largest labor organization, Rengo, on Friday called for a "thorough" debate in the Diet, saying in a statement that it is an issue that would have "a major social impact."
The organization, officially known as the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, also said the government should first work to guarantee the rights of foreign laborers already working in Japan, given that there are some cases in which technical trainees are forced to work long hours or abused in other ways.