OIZUMI, JAPAN: Ageing Japan is reluctantly attempting to prise open its doors to migrant workers as it battles serious labour shortages, raising the hackles of conservatives worried about mass immigration.
Although Japan has long acknowledged the need to bolster its shrinking workforce, it has so far made only grudging efforts to open up its labour market which have failed to meet its needs.
Now premier Shinzo Abe's government wants to open the door to foreign blue-collar workers as early as next April, granting visas for up to five years to those employed in industries facing chronic shortages such as agriculture, nursing and construction.
Workers armed with more advanced skills and Japanese language proficiency would be able to extend their visas and bring over family members — an unprecedented relaxation of immigration rules that has sparked alarm among conservatives, including some within Abe's own party.
But the Japanese business community says the reforms are essential, with an unemployment rate hovering around 2.5 per cent and 164 jobs going for every 100 job seekers in October.
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At Nakamoto Mfg's factory in Oizumi, northwest of Tokyo, some 30 per cent of the workforce are foreigners, mostly Indonesians and Brazilians of Japanese origin.
"We can't get along without them," acknowledges Takemichi Tsukada, a senior official at the company, which makes parts for electronic giants like Hitachi and Panasonic.
"The government says highly skilled workers can stay longer in Japan, but accepting low skilled workers as well is probably better."
The presence of the foreign workers at the Oizumi factory reflects the piecemeal efforts taken by Tokyo to import migrant labour without loosening historically rigid immigration policies.
In 1990 it opened the door to Brazilians and other South Americans of Japanese descent. When that proved insufficient, it allowed businesses to hire foreign workers on a training programme which was part of a development aid package for poorer countries.
That scheme, which also failed to meet demand, was criticised as a stealth migrant labour programme and accused of exploiting workers and providing them with few skills.
Abe's government insists the new reforms will not lead to mass immigration, adding that most workers would not seek to settle down in Japan.
But his opponents — ranging from conservatives who worry foreigners will upset the social order to activists who fear worker exploitation — are unconvinced, with a heated debate underway in parliament this week.
"There are concerns that the crime rate may rise, and jobs may be taken (from Japanese workers)," said Tomomi Inada, a member of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, during the debate.
Despite its reputation as closed, in 2016 Japan ranked fourth among OECD countries on the inflow of foreign residents, behind only Germany, the United States and Britain.
This year, the number of foreign residents hit 2.63 million, two per cent of the population, and nearly double the figure a decade ago.
But immigration remains a worry for many Japanese — recent polls show that slightly more than 50 per cent of voters support the new visa scheme, but support falls below 45 per cent when they are asked about allowing migrant workers to settle in Japan long-term.
Even in Oizumi, where foreign workers are common, there are concerns about integration.
Shoko Takano, 73, runs a Portuguese school for the children of Brazilians, who are not obliged to attend Japanese schools.
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She worries the government has no plans to integrate new foreign workers, and points to frictions in Oizumi with Brazilian residents, including over the sorting of litter and noise pollution.
"These (problems) are created by newcomers, and they can learn if we teach them Japanese rules," she said.
"I hope the government will take responsibility and give them proper Japanese education," she added.
Others want the visa rules to be relaxed further, making it easier for workers — including those lacking Japanese language skills — to bring their families over.
Japan should treat foreigners "not just as workers but humans, who are already playing important roles in industries and local communities," said Ippei Torii, an activist working for the rights of foreign residents.
Kiyoto Tanno, an immigration specialist at Tokyo Metropolitan University, said any restriction on bringing family members was "inhumane".
"The new measures are still treating foreigners only as labourers but not as residents," he said.