Photo/Illutration Applicants for the specified skills visa receive instructions before taking an exam in Nagoya in April 2019. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The number of foreigners working in Japan on the specified skills visa increased nearly six-fold over the past year to reach 22,567, according to the Immigration Services Agency.

The agency on May 25 released the figure for the number of foreign workers as of the end of March, which marked two years since the program was introduced. The number represented a significant rise from the 3,987 recorded a year ago.

Though Japan currently bans entry to all nonresident foreign nationals, more foreign residents in the country who completed the technical intern training program are changing their visa status to “specified skills.”

To alleviate chronic labor shortages in certain industries, the government introduced the specified skills visa system in April 2019 by revising the immigration control law.

Under the system, foreign nationals can work in Japan on the visa for five years in one of 14 sectors, including agriculture, construction and nursing care.

Foreign workers have two ways to obtain the specified skills visa.

One route is to pass an exam that can be taken in Japan or abroad to measure Japanese language ability and the skills needed in the industry sector where the applicant wants to work.

The other way is for applicants to complete the three-year technical intern training program in Japan and then change their visa status to specified skills.

The government initially expected to accept up to 345,000 foreign workers with the specified skills visa over the first five years.

Of the 22,567 foreigners working on the visa, 17,299 changed their visa status to specified skills after completing the technical intern training program or passing the exam while studying in Japan.

The number has continued rising each month since the end of March 2020, when the figure stood at 2,221.

The remaining 5,268 foreign workers passed the exam conducted outside Japan or completed the technical intern training program but temporarily returned to their home country before obtaining the specified skills visa.

The figure was up from the 1,766 a year ago, but has remained almost the same since January, when the government imposed an entry ban on foreign travelers to prevent a further spread of the novel coronavirus.

Of the 22,567 foreign workers with the specified skills visa, 19,092, or more than 80 percent, obtained the visa after completing the technical intern training program. The figure far exceeded that for those who passed the exam.

By nationality and region, Vietnam sent the largest number of workers with the visa to Japan, at 14,147, accounting for more than 60 percent of the total. Vietnam is also the biggest provider of technical intern trainees to Japan.

By sector, the food and beverage industry employed 8,104, or 35.9 percent, of the workers with the specified skills visa.

It was followed by the agriculture sector, at 3,359, or 14.9 percent; the construction industry, at 2,116, or 9.4 percent; the industrial machinery manufacturing sector, at 1,937, or 8.6 percent; and the nursing care industry, at 1,705, or 7.6 percent.