Japan looks to bring in more foreign workers as population falls

Japanese businessmen walking on a Tokyo street.
Japanese businessmen walking on a Tokyo street.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (Bloomberg) - Two aides to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the nation is planning to bring in more overseas workers to bolster the shrinking labour force.

Mr Masahiko Shibayama, a lawmaker in Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party who serves as a special adviser to the prime minister, said in an interview in Singapore on Friday (Sept 16) that policies under consideration may result in a doubling of foreign workers in Japan.

"Probably a lot of strategies are going to be adopted in the coming few years," Mr Shibayama said. "I don't think it's a fixed goal of the government but, in my opinion, doubling the number of foreign workers cannot be avoided in this global market situation. We have to make a sustainable system for accepting more and more foreign workers."

Immigration has often been proposed as a solution to Japan's demographic woes in an ageing society with a low birth rate. Mr Abe has vowed to stop the population from falling below 100 million from the current 127 million, though the idea of bringing in more foreigners has yet to take root amid concerns about the potential effect on a relatively closed society.

In a separate interview on Thursday, Mr Yasutoshi Nishimura, an adviser to Mr Abe and former vice-economy minister, said the government planned to pass a Bill this autumn expanding a foreign "trainee" system under which workers are allowed entry for a limited period and was considering new visa categories for sectors suffering labour shortages.

About 190,000 foreigners are currently working in Japan under this system, Mr Nishimura said in his Tokyo office, adding that the new law would allow participants to stay up to five years, up from the current three years.

It also would allow companies to have trainees compose a larger percentage of the workforce and permit them to be employed in a wider range of business sectors. Oversight of the system also will be improved, he said, after criticism over abuse of workers, who are often employed in farming or the textile industry.

There is also discussion of bringing in technology industry workers from India and Vietnam, Mr Nishimura added, as well as talk of creating a new visa category for workers in the country's rapidly expanding tourism industry.

Mr Shibayama said the expansion of foreign tourism had helped change attitudes towards people from other countries.

"We are receiving a very, very large amount of foreign tourists, and I think that Japanese people are less skeptical about introducing a lot of foreigners in Japan, so the situation will be changing step by step," he said.