Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered the creation of a new system for admitting large numbers of workers from overseas to meet demand.

The workers will not be allowed to bring their families with them, and they will have to leave after working in Japan for a certain period of time.

His administration is planning to broaden the coverage of, and lower the requirements for, residence status categories in “professional or technical fields,” which currently cover only skilled non-Japanese workers, such as university professors, corporate managers and researchers.

The latest measure, which is touted as a response to a serious labor shortage in nursing care, agriculture and other industrial sectors, appears only too opportunistic.

If Japan wants more foreigners to come and work in the country, the basic underlying thought should be how they can live a normal life here and stay long term with their family members.

Some 1.28 million foreign nationals were working in Japan as of October last year, up 600,000 from five years earlier.

Those who are not staying in Japan to work accounted for more than half of the increase. Those engaged in extra-status activities, such as students working part time, were up 188,000, whereas trainees under the technical intern training program, which is ostensibly designed to teach them skills and knowledge as part of Japan’s international contribution, had grown by 123,000.

The government has admitted to distortions in the current state of things. Government officials have said they set their sights on the “professional or technical fields” in order, in their words, to “review the qualifications for those who come to Japan to work.”

They said they will calculate the required number of workers by taking into account the skills and linguistic ability that those workers need in each job category.

Similar mechanisms are being operated overseas. Some may see the latest government plan in a positive light, saying that progress will be made by fixing the current state, whereby Japan has developed reliance on foreign students and trainees without serious debate.

But the plan not only raises concerns about human rights but also could fail to present an effective measure for securing an adequate labor force. Such misgivings are inevitable in the light of opinions heard on the front lines of the technical intern training system, which also admits workers for limited periods of time.

While disputes are frequently breaking out over trainees’ wages and working hours, no small number of business owners who play host to trainees are treating and educating them conscientiously. There is no end to their complaints about, and calls for an improvement on, the way trainees have to return home as soon as they have mastered their craft, and the hosts are kept busy recruiting replacement trainees.

The trainees are also valuable members of regional communities in areas where the population is aging and shrinking. Community development will remain difficult as long as successive bunches of trainees have no sooner blended into regional society than they have to leave.

The Abe administration has repeatedly expanded the technical intern training system as a de facto remedy to a work force shortage. It has apparently started mulling the new measure because the old way has been pushed to the limits.

A growing number of observers say, however, that fewer workers are choosing to come to Japan amid an intensifying global competition for acquiring workers.

The administration has reiterated that it is not going to admit so-called “immigrants.” Abe emphasized, when he made the latest announcement, that eligibility for working in Japan will be expanded only insofar as an upper limit will be set on the workers’ period of stay, and they are basically not allowed to bring their families with them.

But it is probably high time that we thought about more pliable, and more open, worker admission measures.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 25