More Japanese open to foreign workers as labour crunch bites, despite concerns of ‘different values’

“But I believe we should choose very carefully with the people who come to Japan in the future,” he said. “We need skilled workers, but we do not need people with radical ideologies who will try to change our society and cause problems.

“We do not want to repeat the mistakes that European countries made with unrestricted immigration.”

The Asahi poll, conducted between February and April and released on Monday, showed that 29 per cent of those taking part remained opposed to the government relaxing rules on visas, down from 46 per cent in 2018.

Pedestrians walk past a shop displaying Portuguese signs for foreigners in Japan’s Gunma prefecture. Photo: AFP

A shift to greater acceptance of foreign workers was recorded across all age groups but was, perhaps surprisingly, most pronounced among older people. Among those aged 70 or older, the rate went from 38 per cent six years ago to 62 per cent in the most recent survey.

Among people in their teens and 20s, the rate climbed more moderately, rising from 60 per cent in 2018 to 66 per cent in the latest survey.

A report published by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare on March 1 showed that there were a record 2,048,675 foreign workers in Japan as of October 31 last year, an increase of 225,950 from the previous year and the first time the figure has surpassed the 2 million threshold.

Nearly 600,000 are on visas linked to their profession or technical skills, such as in business, law, research or medicine, with another 412,000 on technical internships visas.

Workers assemble a vehicle on the production line at a factory in Gunma prefecture last year. About 27 per cent of foreign workers are employed in Japan’s manufacturing sector. Photo: Bloomberg

About 27 per cent of workers were employed in the manufacturing sector, followed by nearly 16 per cent in the service industry and 12.9 per cent in the wholesale and retail sector.

“The public better understands the labour shortage that Japan is experiencing and that is the reason we are seeing this sharp difference from 2018,” said Masataka Nakagawa, a senior researcher with the government-run National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

“The most dramatic changes came during the pandemic, when the problems associated with labour shortages could be found across all sectors of Japanese industry,” he said.

A bus arrives at a bus stop in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture. The transport sector has been particularly hard hit by new regulations limiting the amount of overtime hours for workers. Photo: EPA-EFE

The transport sector has been particularly hard hit as new regulations came into force this month limiting the number of overtime hours bus, truck and taxi drivers can work behind the wheel.

Staff shortages, however, are being felt in everything from hotels to hospitals and retirement homes, restaurants, retailers, the tech sector, manufacturing and construction.

Hard-pressed workers in the service sector would welcome the assistance, said Issei Izawa, who works for a high-end hotel chain in Tokyo.

“We are having to work longer days and getting fewer days off because the company cannot secure enough staff,” he said. “It has been a busy year already because foreign tourists are returning in large numbers and we have been told that Chinese tourists will soon start arriving in large numbers, so we need even more help.”

If we let in large numbers of low-skilled workers then that will have a negative impact on the wages of Japanese people

Masataka Nakagawa, population researcher

“I am having trouble arranging a few days off for my own holiday later in the summer because we are already short-staffed, so foreign workers would be very welcome in the hotel sector here,” Izawa added. “And from friends who are in other jobs, I think they would also be completely open to the extra help.”

Population researcher Nakagawa believes that public perceptions have become more open to foreign workers as a result of Japanese people being more exposed to overseas tourists in recent years and finding the experience less alarming than they might have anticipated.

But he agrees that caution needs to be exercised to limit the impact of an influx of foreign workers.

‘Overwhelmingly young’: Japan visa changes may fuel worker immigration

“We have to be careful as if we let in large numbers of low-skilled workers then that will have a negative impact on the wages of Japanese people in that sector,” he said. “On the other hand, there is strong demand at the moment for semi-skilled workers, such as in the care sector, so more visas would help alleviate those shortages.”

The challenge, he said, would be for Japan to hit the sweet spot of issuing sufficient visas to meet the labour shortfall while not allowing too many arrivals, as that could unbalance society and cause friction with local residents.

Kato, on the other hand, is adamant that Japan does not need more workers over the long term.

“Japan may be short of workers right now, but AI, robotics and other advanced technologies are making quick progress, so there will be no need for people to do those jobs in 10 or 20 years,” he said.

“Businesses say they are desperate for staff now, but that will not last, and I feel that inviting more workers into Japan now is a short-sighted policy.”

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