The envisaged creation of a new visa program to accept foreign workers may help ease Japan's serious labor crunch that looks set to get worse in coming years amid the rapid aging of its society.
For a country known for keeping a firm grip on immigration, however, the challenges are manifold, ranging from social security to education, to prevent incoming foreign workers from being left out.
(A Taiwanese clerk attending to a guest at a hotel in Tokyo in 2017)
The program, a major shift from Japan's traditional policy of accepting highly skilled professionals in principle, comes in response to growing calls from companies and industries facing acute labor shortages on the government to address the situation.
As the new scheme, which still needs parliamentary approval, is designed for foreigners wishing to work in limited sectors facing severe labor shortages, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe maintains it would not herald a full-fledged opening of the country to immigrants.
But experts on labor and immigration argue that foreign labor should not simply be treated as a quick fix, calling for a fundamental and longer-term approach to encouraging people of different nationalities to assimilate into society.
"Accepting foreign workers (in new fields) requires Japan to shoulder a heavy responsibility to make the social system accommodating. This may necessitate changes to its system along the way," said Eriko Suzuki, a professor well-versed in immigration policy at Kokushikan University in Tokyo.
"Japan has maintained a position of not accepting blue-collar workers, but people from different countries are already in Japan through various channels such as the government-sponsored technical training program. So officially accepting them as 'workers' is an important step," Suzuki added.
The number of foreign nationals stood at around 2.5 million as of January, up some 174,000 from the previous year, lifted by demand for foreign labor, government data show. Japan's total population, including foreign residents, fell around 200,000 from a year earlier to about 128 million due largely to aging.
Japan's labor market remains tight, with the availability of jobs at a four-decade high while the world's third-largest economy enjoys modest growth.
The Cabinet approved legislation Friday to create new types of visa for foreign nationals with Japanese language skills wishing to work in Japan, with an eye to launching them in April.
The first type, valid for up to five years, will be given to those who have adequate knowledge and experience in a specific field. They cannot bring their family members to Japan.
The second type will be for those with higher-level work and Japanese-language skills, with no limit on its renewal. Those applying for this visa category can bring in family members and stay in the country permanently.
The government is expected to pick 14 sectors that are in urgent need of labor such as construction, farming, elderly care and airport services, with no cap planned at present on the number of foreign workers accepted into the country.
But details of the targeted sectors are still sketchy and it remains unknown how the government will confirm labor shortages have been resolved, a criteria that enables it to suspend the acceptance of foreign labor.
To accommodate newcomers, improving social security is seen as a priority. Even now, residents in Japan, regardless of nationality, need to be enrolled in the national pension and health insurance systems.
But some people have been calling for measures against possible abuse of the systems following the revelation of cases in which foreign nationals who do not reside in Japan received healthcare coverage as dependents of their family members living in the country.
Concerned about the impact on such social security systems of the envisaged visa scheme, some lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are now urging the government to make sure incoming workers also fulfill their obligations such as payment of taxes and health insurance premiums.
For the benefit of incoming workers, experts also say the number of social security agreements between Japan and other countries -- which allow workers to become eligible for pension benefits at home even if they live abroad for a certain period of time -- needs to increase.
Takuya Hoshino, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said improving social security for foreign workers is a must.
"We cannot be complacent because people come to Japan for jobs now as such a situation will not continue forever," Hoshino said. He pointed to other countries that may become more appealing to foreign workers or economic growth in their own countries that would improve the job market and discourage them from going abroad.
Still, Japan's regional economies can benefit from the envisaged program as labor shortages there are more severe compared with major cities, according to Hoshino.
The airline industry, whose airport services are expected to be among the 14 sectors targeted under the new visa program, welcomed the move as it faces the prospect of a labor crunch amid an increase in the number of foreign visitors to Japan.
"In particular, labor shortage will likely get severe at regional airports," said a Japan Airlines Co. official.
Companies hiring foreign workers under the new program are required to provide assistance not only in the workplace but in everyday life.
Kokushikan University professor Suzuki says educational reform is one of the top priorities if Japan continues to accept foreign laborers as the country's compulsory education system only targets Japanese nationals.
"It comes down to whether people from abroad can have hopes for their future in Japan," Suzuki said. "Education for children and their career options over the long term matter."
Apart from businesses craving for foreign laborers, the general public in Japan is divided about the envisioned growth of overseas workers.
A recent online survey on migrant workers responded to by 2,000 people showed 56.3 percent said they are fine with the status quo, while 23.9 percent hoped for more laborers from abroad and 19.8 percent preferred to see fewer foreign nationals than now, according to the Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards.
(Su Xincheng contributed to this story)