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Japan immigration

Snubbed by foreigners, Japan revamps blue-collar work visa program

With just 1,000 visa holders, Tokyo missing 40,000 target

TOKYO -- Facing the cold reality of a dearth of workers from abroad, Japan will update its new work visa program designed to fill jobs in such labor-tight industries as nursing care, restaurants and manufacturing.

The biggest challenge in attracting workers is the limited eligibility for taking the mandatory skills and language tests, the Immigration Services Agency told a meeting of ministers Friday. The government will relax standards next month.

"Nowadays, foreigners choose countries," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told ministers. "We aim to become a country where they want to live, a country where they want to work," he said, telling relevant agencies to cooperate closely toward this end.

Japan introduced "specified skilled worker" resident status in April for foreigners working in any of 14 labor-short industries. Those qualifying can stay up to five years without additional testing, up from the general three-year limit under the old technical intern program.

The government seeks to bring in up to 345,000 semiskilled workers through this pathway over five years from the 2019 launch of the program, including as many as 40,000 in the first year. But only 1,019 people were in the country with this visa at the end of November, the immigration agency said. The tally included 303 in food and beverage production, 169 in agriculture, and 151 in industrial machinery manufacturing.

The agency blamed the steep shortfall in visa holders on the strict criteria for sitting for the tests and a lack of information. Only those in the country for medium- to long-term stays could take the exams until now. From January, first-time visitors staying for no more than three months can take them, including tourists and those on business trips. The latest information on the exams will also be provided in less-common languages.

Difficulty finding work poses another challenge for those who pass the exams. The government will offer support for matching eligible candidates with prospective employers. Local governments and public employment agencies will also work closely together starting next fiscal year, aiming to bring more foreigners to regions beyond Tokyo and Osaka.

"Many countries are still working out systems for sending workers abroad," said Shohei Sugita, a Century Law Office attorney versed in the visa program.

"Procedures including legal frameworks have yet to be established, so it will take a while before countries start to send a large number of people," Sugita said.

Businesses hard up for labor are watching the program update closely. "We want to have the visa system explained in simple terms," said the chairman of a food service trade group.

Even when employers do find foreign workers, both sides must submit a variety of documents, according to Ryuji Suzuki, who heads Proud, a company that helps restaurants and other businesses obtain visas for staffers.

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