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Signs of progress in how Japan treats foreign workers

Reading Time: 5 mins
A technical intern trainee from foreign country gathers vegetable with his instructor, Hokota City, Japan, 13 December 2021 (Photo: Reuters/The Yomiuri Shimbun).

In Brief

In the early 1990s, Japan was under pressure to play a larger role in the international community. Japan’s government established the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) in 1993 to transfer skills to trainees from developing countries to meet international community expectations. The introduction of the TITP also coincided with a shortage of labour across Japan, particularly at small firms.


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The TITP has played an important role plugging labour shortages and has become indispensable as the shortage of Japanese workers has worsened. But while the TITP has been sold as a contribution to international development, this characterisation belies the reality the program.

Although the TITP filled labour shortages — a situation which has grown more pronounced — it failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of trainees.

In 2017, the Organisation for Technical Intern Training (OTIT) was established as a supervisory agency to oversee the TITP and protect foreign trainees. In November 2017, the Technical Intern Training Act came to effect, with the aim of ensuring the appropriate implementation of technical training.

In April 2023, Japan’s Ministry of Justice released an interim report on transitioning to a new regulatory system of foreign workers. The report recommended the abolition of the current TITP, which allows foreigners to work while learning skills at professional training organisations.

The TITP has been criticised for importing cheap labour, allowing long working hours and illegally promoting low wages. The focus of the TITP is on labour collectively, rather than individual human lives. It is a one-sided mechanism for learning, which has operated through skill and technology transfers to developing countries. Such an approach is outdated and patronising. The government has been urged to take action to address these issues.

While the interim report has received positive feedback, it also notes that the Immigration Services Agency and conservative politicians have impaired the transition to a new program as they have done as much as possible to prevent foreigners from permanently residing in Japan. The report’s expert panel has proposed a new system that would allow for possible long-term stays and some degree of flexibility in changing training places (tenseki). These options are not allowed in the current TITP.

The new system aims to not only develop skills through training (ikusei), but also to secure adequate staffing (jinzai kakuho) for companies. The report proposes a new ‘specific skill’ system that would exempt TITP trainees who have completed more than three years of training from taking the qualifying exam, paving the way for long-term employment. The new system also proposes stricter requirements to ensure the independence of registered supervisory organisations (kanri dantai) from the employers of trainees. A final report is expected in September 2023.

The draft proposal admits that ‘continuing to accept trainees while only emphasising international contributions is not desirable’ and the TITP needs to recognise the contributions of trainees in filling labour shortages. The proposal suggests that the existing technical training system should be replaced with a new system that will both train participants and secure human resources for Japan.

But the proposal still maintains the purpose of training (ikusei) is a one-way physical transfer of skills. Though the proposal recommends allowing interns to change their training places (tenseki), it states that the purpose of training, in and of itself, justifies limiting the relaxation of those restrictions. The proposed new system may continue to take away the freedom of foreign workers.

Liberal advocates, such as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, call for the abolition of the TITP and promote the integration of migrants into Japanese society. Conservatives instead argue the social costs of education, healthcare, social security and welfare when accepting foreign workers are manifold. Accepting foreign workers leads to settlement and family reunification. Some voice concerns about Japan bearing increasing social costs associated with the ageing of foreign workers. Conservatives also worry that migrants’ lack of language skills and understanding of Japan’s society may lead to misunderstanding and conflict, causing social anxiety.

Japanese local governments are taking steps to promote the protection of foreign workers’ rights given the lack of action at the national level.

As trainees stay longer, some multi-ethnic cities, such as Kawasaki and Hamamatsu, have little option but to act on the need to protect the rights of foreign residents. Many technical intern trainees marry Japanese people, change jobs and become a part of broader society along with their children. Local communities provide the immediate environment where residents engage and connect with foreigners and can play a vital role in driving greater public acceptance of foreign residents.

By 2065, the number of registered foreign residents and workers in Japan — including naturalised citizens and the children of foreign-born parents — is estimated to be 12 per cent of the total population. It is vital for Japan to become an immigration nation, despite the central government’s reluctance to move beyond recognition of foreigners as only temporary workers or trainees not citizens contributing to Japan’s communities.

It will be detrimental to Japan’s future if the government fails to treat foreign workers with a view toward social integration that recognises them as full and legitimate members of society.

Yasuo Takao is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, Curtin University, Perth.

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