TOKYO (Reuters) — Shinichiro Tsukada says his small plastering company in Tokyo wouldn't survive without the 22 Chinese and Vietnamese workers who make up half his payroll.
"They're treasures, real treasures," he said. "Workers are disappearing as our population ages. Buildings cannot be built because there aren't enough workers... We have no choice but to allow them into the country."
Across Japan, hotels, farms and construction sites are feeling an intensifying labour crunch as the worker pool shrinks and demand rises ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
That is prying open the country's restrictive immigration policies, which until now have only allowed a trickle of so-called unskilled foreign workers into the country.
But authorities are treading carefully because immigration is a delicate subject in Japan. Although public attitudes are slowly shifting, there is widespread concern that an influx of foreigners will upset the social order, increase job competition and weaken traditions.
"I believe we'll continue to need foreign workers," said Hiroki Kojima, a 28-year-old in the information technology industry. "But the word 'immigration' makes me anxious because good things about Japan, like public safety, could deteriorate."
Driven by economic and demographic forces, the government is set to announce plans on Friday that will create new five-year work permit categories for foreigners.
Officials have said they are focusing on five areas: farming, construction, hotels, elderly care and shipbuilding.
Authorities are also considering allowing foreign workers who pass certain tests to stay indefinitely and bring family members. If the measures are approved by the Cabinet, the government aims to have parliament make them into law this fall.
Although authorities are reluctant to describe the steps as immigration policy, they mark a turn toward a more open Japan.
"We are reaching a point where if we don't start thinking about immigration, then Japan's future will be in danger," said Toshihiro Menju, the managing director at the Japan Center for International Exchange.
The number of all types of foreign workers in Japan has risen steadily in recent years to 1.28 million — about 1 percent of the population — more than doubling from 486,000 in 2008.
The biggest increases have come in two categories: foreign students, who are permitted to work 28 hours a week, and those on a technical intern program, which lasts up to five years before participants must return home.
Many trainees see such internships as a way to earn more money than they would at home, while Japanese businesses often hire them to do undesirable jobs that are hard to fill.
The new permits are meant to bring more workers into that pool and have been applauded by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a group of small and medium-sized businesses that have been hit hardest by the crunch.
Surveys show public attitudes are gradually becoming more accepting of foreigners.
A 2017 survey by public broadcaster NHK showed that 51 per cent of respondents said restrictions on foreign workers should be maintained at current levels, down slightly from 56 per cent in 1992.
But among many Japanese, worries persist.
"The image I have is that they might make the city dirtier, like spraying graffiti or throwing trash," said Yuki, a woman in her 40s who lives in Tokyo. "If they were doing more highly skilled work that would enhance Japan's economy, I'd be in favor of that. But I'm worried about bringing in blue-collar workers."
A bestselling book published last year, "Chronology of the Future," captured many people's fears.
Author Masashi Kawai, a journalist with the conservative Sankei newspaper, said Japan should transform into a compact and more efficient country rather than relax immigration rules.
"The acceptance of a large number of immigrants in European countries has brought about such turmoil as terror attacks, riots and anti-immigration movements," he wrote. "An unprincipled acceptance of foreigners will create a social divide in Japan, too."
In Japan's rapidly aging countryside, agriculture is becoming dependent on foreign workers for survival.
Shouji Sawaura, 54, says he simply cannot hire enough locals at his farming business, Green Leaf, in central Gunma prefecture, where he raises spinach, cabbage and other vegetables.
He relies on 24 workers from Thailand and Vietnam who operate machinery in a factory that makes pickles and shirataki noodles.
"We need a system that allows in foreigners for these kinds of jobs" instead of relying on temporary trainees, he said.
The new permits also would remove fees paid to brokers who arrange the internships, Sawaura said.
Sawaura, however, balked at the idea of allowing unskilled workers into the country indefinitely with their families - but not out of fear for safety, which he says has never been a problem in his area.
His concern is that in an economic slump, the laborers would be less able to support their families, putting a strain on Japan's social services.
Sawaura recalled the fate of many Japanese Brazilians who came to Japan during the 1990s and early 2000s under special work permits, but lost their jobs during the 2008 financial crisis. Many returned to Latin America.
"Only those who have skills and expertise to support themselves should be allowed to stay indefinitely," he said.
Japan is only beginning to wake up to the need to integrate foreigners into society, with language being one of the biggest obstacles, said Keizo Yamawaki, a professor of immigration policy at Meiji University in Tokyo.
To that end, lawmakers have drafted a bill calling for steps to educate foreigners living in Japan.
"If I don't know Japanese, I don't even communicate with my co-workers, with my patients, with my boss," said Connie Santiago, a Filipina who works at the Asakusa Horai elderly care home in Tokyo.
Wang Jinbao, 48, a Chinese plasterer who has worked for six years at Tsukada's construction company, says he would like to be able to live with his family in Japan.
Wang said learning the language has helped him fit in. He likes Japan's safety and cleanliness, has made friends here, and earns about twice as much money as he would in China.
"I want to keep working here," he said.
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