Japan is preparing to add four sectors including the transportation industry to its foreign blue-collar skilled worker visa granting up to five years of working rights, government sources said Sunday, amid fears of driver shortages.

The move would bring the eligible industries under the Specified Skilled Worker No. 1 visa to 16 with the road transportation, railway, forestry and timber sectors under review, marking the first expansion since the system was introduced in 2019.

Relevant ministries under the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are cooperating with a view to a decision on their inclusion to the No. 1 visa within the current fiscal year, which will end on March 31, the sources said.

Japanse language and skills tests held in April 2019. (Kyodo) 

Japan's need for foreign labor has risen due in part to a declining birthrate. There are also concerns about pronounced shortages in the transportation and logistics industries once new driver overtime rules begin in April, in what is known as the "2024 problem."

To help alleviate the issue, positions such as bus, taxi and truck drivers are expected to become eligible, while the government has received requests from the railway industry for manufacturing, driving and station-related roles to be included, the sources said.

Foreigners with the No. 1 visa must have passed a test demonstrating professional and Japanese language skills enabling them to work immediately. The No. 2 visa allows for unlimited renewals and permits workers to bring their children and spouses to Japan.

As part of its efforts to secure more foreign labor, the Japanese government last year expanded the scope of industries covered by the No. 2 visa to 11 from two, in a major shift in the country's restrictive immigration policy.

Uptake of the programs, however, is behind government expectations. At the time the visas were established in April 2019, it projected a maximum of 345,150 holders by March 2024.

But as of the end of November last year, some 200,000 people held the No. 1 visa, while just 29 had the No. 2 status, according to data from the immigration agency.

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