Japan's new skilled foreign labor acceptance system off to sluggish start

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Indonesian Bima Aji Nugroho operates machinery at Inoue metal works in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept. 24, 2019. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

TOKYO -- It has been some six months since Japan implemented a set of new visa statuses in hopes of attracting hundreds of thousands of skilled foreign workers to help fill yawning gaps in the country's labor force. The government envisioned welcoming as many as 47,550 people in the new system's first year. As of Oct. 18, however, the number of foreigners to obtain a "specific skilled worker" status stood at just 616.


Accusations that the entire enterprise was "rushed" and "slipshod" flew thick and fast in the National Diet last year when the legal revisions creating the new statuses and upgrading the immigration authorities from a bureau to an agency were being debated. The proof would seem to be in the pudding, and with worker-starved regional parts of Japan beginning to gripe, the push is on to get the new foreign labor acceptance system into smooth working order.

One of the 616 is 26-year-old Indonesian Bima Aji Nugroho, who arrived at Tokyo's Haneda Airport with his specified skilled worker status in hand on Sept. 18 this year. Spotting a representative of his employer who had come to meet him, Bima broke into a smile. This was not his first time in Japan. He had worked here in the past, returning to Indonesia a year and seven months before his September Haneda touch-down. "I'm happy to be back in Japan," he said. "I'll work hard."

Bima first arrived on these shores under the technical intern program, the stated aim of which is to give young people from certain developing nations Japanese skills and technical knowhow. He was employed at Inoue metal works in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. There, he strived to perfect making metal parts with precision down to hundredths of a millimeter. He earned twice the wage he would have got in Indonesia, learned Japanese manufacturing techniques, and also built relationships with his Japanese coworkers, including going on group holidays.

When his three-year trainee visa ran out, Bima wanted to keep working in Japan. However, due to the explicit international contribution aim of the technical intern program, he was not allowed to stay or return to Japan under the same status. And so, some months later Bima found himself working at a hotel in Thailand. That was when he saw a news report on the new skilled worker visa statuses, and he got in touch with Inoue metal works, his former employer.

"There are some technical trainees we don't want to have to send back to their home countries," said 50-year-old metal works president Yuko Inoue of Bima's return to the factory floor.

To sponsor a specified skilled worker, a firm must pay them "at least the same amount as a Japanese person" in the same type of job. Counting back to his time as an intern, that makes Bima the equivalent of a fourth-year employee at Inoue. There are also significant costs attached to going through the bureaucratic processes to bring in a skilled foreign worker, "but if it's someone we really want to have, then we can do it. We want to have him (Bima) here as a technical professional for five years," said the president, referring to the maximum length of the specified skilled worker visas.

The new statuses went into effect in April this year, and cover jobs in 14 industries with severe labor shortages. The government is looking to bring in a maximum of 345,150 foreign workers in the first five years of the new framework. However, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, there have been just 2,258 applications as of Oct. 18, resulting in the aforementioned 616 actual approvals.

"There are quite a few cases where (application) evaluation and processing is taking a long time due to insufficient documentation and other problems," said the agency official in charge.

Another reason for the slow start is that most of the skills tests needed for applicants to show they qualify to work in one of the designated industries have not yet been implemented. The ministries and agencies responsible for the designated industries are supposed to draw up the tests plus Japanese language exams, which applicants must also pass. Only technical trainees who already have three years in a Japanese company internship under their belts are exempt from the tests, and these trainees make up the majority of the 616 successful applications. Many are like Bima, heading to the same firms that hosted them as interns.

One official in a relevant government body also stated, "We were unable to make (exam) preparations due to domestic issues" in the dispatching countries as another reason for the sluggish start. The official's agency at first considered holding the skills exams in Vietnam, but the conclusion of a bilateral memorandum of cooperation with Hanoi to try to eliminate dishonest foreign labor brokers was pushed back until July this year. The agency ended up moving to set up the tests in another country. Vietnam is the largest single source of technical trainees to Japan, and is expected to be a major supplier of skilled workers as well. However, there are still no skills tests being held in the country.

Japan has signed memorandums of cooperation with many countries across Asia, but there were just four such agreements in place when the new visa statuses launched in April. That rose to nine in August, but as of the end of September exams were only being given for three skills types: nursing, lodging and food services. There was no one who could make the jump to the new visa statuses right away in these fields either because no one had completed a technical training course as of April, or because no technical training course was available in the first place.

Nursing tests have been held in Cambodia and the Philippines. However, Philippines rules for allowing successful exam-takers to head to Japan have not been set yet, meaning there are about 600 such people cooling there heals at home even though they meet the new visa requirements. Another 280 or so Filipinos passed the test for the lodging industry, but only eight have actually obtained skilled worker status. It is thought that there are also a lot of foreign students in Japan waiting to graduate before applying.

The Japan Ryokan & Hotel Association told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There are a lot of establishments taking a wait-and-see approach. It's certainly true that the industry has a severe labor shortage, but it seems a lot of businesses are reluctant to hire new people because they are unsure of what will happen after the Tokyo 2020 Games."

Waves of skills tests in various industries will kick off at the end of the year and the close of the 2019 fiscal year next March. Only then will we get a sense of how many workers will be arriving on Japan's shores.

(Japanese original by Takakazu Murakami and Jun Kaneko, City News Department