Japan's Cabinet on Friday approved a plan to expand the scope of industries covered by the blue-collar skilled worker visa that creates a path to permanent residency for foreigners, in a major shift in the country's restrictive immigration policy.

Raising the number of industries to 11 from the current two, the government seeks to start holding language and skill examinations targeting applicants in the newly added sectors from around this fall after soliciting public opinion.

"It is important to promote smooth acceptance of human resources. To address the severe labor shortage, Japan will expand the (visa's) scope," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a meeting of relevant ministers.

A ministerial meeting is held at the prime minister's office on June 9, 2023, in Tokyo to discuss opening access to the country for more foreign workers. (Kyodo)

Currently, only proficient laborers in the construction and shipbuilding sectors can upgrade their status to the Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 visa, which has no limit on how many times it can be renewed and allows holders to bring children and spouses into the country.

Under the revision, foreign workers in another nine industries, including the fishery, agriculture and hotel sectors, who hold the Specified Skilled Worker No. 1 visas, can apply for No. 2 visas, provided they pass Japanese language and technical skills exams.

The No. 1 visa allows a worker to stay in Japan for up to five years and cannot be renewed.

As of the end of March, the number of foreigners in Japan on the No. 1 visa totaled around 150,000 and No. 2 only 11, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan.

The current specified skilled workers system was introduced in 2019 to attract foreign workers in response to the country's severe labor shortage caused in part by a declining birthrate.

After the inception of the system, the government was cautious about expanding the scope of the visa that establishes a pathway to permanent residency as it allows the holder to spend the requisite amount of time in Japan.

But it has received calls to expand the scope of the No. 2 residency status from companies in various industries that wish to retain their foreign workers.

People working as carers, meanwhile, will not be included in the planned change as a visa for foreigners who are certified in Japan exists already. The carer-specific visa can be renewed indefinitely and allows the worker to bring children and spouses into the country.

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