Photo/IllutrationJustice Minister Takashi Yamashita, far right, has time on his hands at the Nov. 16 Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee session that was boycotted by opposition party members, whose empty seats are visible in the foreground. (Satoru Iizuka)

Diet deliberations on a contentious new visa system for foreign workers hit a brick wall Nov. 16 after opposition parties accused the Justice Ministry of white-washing the realities facing foreign technical interns in Japan.

Members of opposition parties boycotted the debate in the Judicial Affairs Committee in the Lower House following the release of revised data that throws a new light on conditions confronting technical interns.

The opposition parties contend that the many problems that have emerged in the technical intern training program need to be addressed before the government rushes ahead with revising the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law to set up a new "specific skills" residence status for foreign workers.

With about half of the technical trainees now in Japan expected to switch over to the specific skills visa next April if the legislation takes effect, opposition lawmakers have expressed concern that the system could only magnify the problems faced by foreign workers.

The Justice Ministry on Nov. 16 presented what it described as the revised results of interviews with 2,870 foreign technical intern trainees who fled their designated workplace in 2017 and were later detained prior to deportation.

The initial ministry explanation was that 86.9 percent of those trainees said they left their workplace in order to find a job with higher wages.

It turns out that question was never asked. Instead, they were asked if low wages at their workplace was the reason for leaving.

The ministry also said the percentage of trainees giving that answer--67.2 percent--was the correct figure rather than the 86.9 percent in the initial release.

In addition, 144 trainees said they were paid less than the amount outlined in their work contract, while another 22 said they received less than the minimum wage.

The ministry left itself open to accusations it was trying to play down the harsh conditions faced by the technical trainees.

Initially, the ministry said only 5.4 percent of trainees fled because of what they described as the harsh workplace environment. In fact, 12.6 percent of trainees gave that answer.

In addition, the ministry revised the figure of trainees who said they had been physically abused at the workplace from 3 percent to 4.9 percent.

Presented with the new figures at a meeting of directors of the Judicial Affairs Committee, opposition lawmakers were incensed and boycotted the Nov. 16 committee session.

Shiori Yamao of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan called the revised study results "a fatal mistake and unforgivable fabrication of data," adding that "the fundamental core of the legislation (to set up the new work visa) has been turned upside down."

Yasuhiro Hanashi of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and chairman of the Lower House Judicial Affairs Committee tried to move proceedings along Nov. 16, a move that drew the ire of the opposition parties and the submission of a resolution to have Hanashi ousted as chairman.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, chairperson of the CDP's Diet Affairs Committee, said: "It seems the Justice Ministry may have distorted for many years the actual conditions faced by technical intern trainees. Moving to hold a committee session was simply too rash."

Since the ruling coalition controls an overwhelming majority in the Lower House, the opposition resolution will likely be voted down next week and committee deliberations will resume soon after with Hanashi still at the helm.

Still, the resistance put up by the opposition camp may force the ruling coalition to extend the current extraordinary Diet session in order to pass the bill to establish the new visa status. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said he wants the new program in place from April to address personnel shortages in 14 business sectors that will be opened up to foreign workers.

In explaining the disparity in figures in its reports, Justice Ministry officials blamed human error during the compilation process.