Japan has been gearing up to attract more foreign workers to address its severe labor shortage, with its Cabinet approving a plan to expand the number of industries covered by the blue-collar skilled worker visa that effectively grants permanent residency.
But the country faces headwinds as an attractive workplace amid a weakening yen and competition from other Asian locations such as Taiwan and South Korea with fewer visa requirements.
Weng Fei, an employee of the construction company in Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, obtained the Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 visa in April last year as the first person in Japan to do so.
As the visa allows holders to bring in family members and has no limit on the number of times they can renew their visa, the 36-year-old has been reunited with his wife from China and now seeks to work longer in his company, where he leads a group of employees made up of Japanese and foreign workers.
"I trust him enough to make him responsible as a foreman," said Taketo Kano, the 51-year-old president of the construction company.
But Kano acknowledged that welcoming foreign workers requires great efforts, saying he helped Weng acquire qualifications in addition to picking up and dropping off Weng's family members to Japanese classes.
"It requires time and patience," he added.
Currently, only proficient laborers in the construction and shipbuilding sectors can upgrade their status to the Specified Skilled Worker No. 2 visa.
But the revision approved by the Cabinet includes nine more industries -- among them the fishery, agriculture and hotel sectors -- with foreign workers under the Specified Skilled Worker No. 1 visas able to apply for No. 2, provided they pass Japanese language and technical skills exams.
As of the end of last year, the number of foreigners who had obtained the No. 1 status stood at around 130,000. Vietnamese people made up the majority at 77,000, but the winds are starting to shift.
"The time when Japan dominated has ended," said one Japanese employee who works for an organization that assists Vietnamese people in working abroad. "At this rate, we will be left behind."
One 34-year-old worker decided to go to South Korea instead of Japan, remaining there for about five years before returning home last year. She noted the abundance of support networks and free Korean language classes.
Taiwan is also becoming a popular destination for work. Between January and March, the number of Vietnamese who went to the island exceeded 18,000, surpassing those who came to Japan in the same period.
"It costs about $8,000 to fly over," but it takes less time to begin working, said an official from another organization who assists in sending workers abroad.
While those who want to work in Japan under the No.1 status require some Japanese language proficiency, there is no such prerequisite, nor any need to sit an exam to work in Taiwan. Foreign workers may also be attracted to the possibility of being employed on the island for up to 12 years.
Taiwan has accepted migrant workers from Southeast Asia since 1992, hosting about 730,000 in comparison with its population of around 23.3 million people.