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Reevaluating Japan’s landmark foreign worker reforms

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Newly hired employees of Japan Airlines fly paper planes during the company group's initiation ceremony in Tokyo, Japan, 1 April 2024 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato)

In Brief

In 2019, Japan introduced the Specified Skilled Worker system to address labour shortages in specific industries, and aimed to admit 345,150 foreign workers over the first five years. Despite missing the target, with only 208,462 workers admitted due to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan's government is focusing on reforming and expanding the system with a new goal to admit 820,000 more workers by 2027.

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On 1 April 2019, the Japanese government implemented arguably the most comprehensive new immigration law in decades. Most significantly, the 2019 amendment to the Immigration Control Act created the Specified Skilled Worker (SSW) system for a total of 12 industries suffering from labour shortages.

Over its first five years, the government aimed to admit 345,150 additional foreign workers through the system under two new residence statuses, SSW1 and SSW2. Potential workers need to pass both a language test and an industry-specific exam, or they can switch over from the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) after three years. SSW1 serves as the entry into the system, accounts for the overwhelming majority of those admitted and allows a five-year maximum stay. On the other hand, SSW2 requires more technical experience, has separate exams, has no limits on maximum stay and allows for family reunification. 

When the law was implemented, both domestic and foreign outlets described it as a major divergence from previous policy, reversing decades of reluctance towards formally admitting foreign workers and potentially setting Japan on a path to become a ‘country of immigration’. Then prime minister Shinzo Abe rebutted such arguments, stating, ‘Japan would not adopt a so-called immigration policy’. 

Given five years have passed since the amendment, and that the government set numerical targets on a five-year timeframe, questions arise. How has the law been implemented? Has it been the landmark reform many were expecting? 

While the latest data only goes to December 2023, it looks likely that the number of foreign workers accepted under the SSW program is set to miss the government’s target. Only 208,462 workers have been admitted. 

From the outset, implementation of the amendment was slow for three main reasons. First, the haste with which the amendment went from being passed into law to its implementation — December 18 to April 2019 — allowed little time to prepare the bureaucratic infrastructure. Second, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — the associated economic downturn and border measures — slowed demand for and capacity to admit foreign workers. Third, the TITP has remained the primary vehicle for many employers looking to hire foreign workers in industries the SSW covers. 

This meant that by early 2022, only about 50,000 workers had been admitted. The SSW’s intake did significantly expand in 2022 and 2023, slowly entrenching the SSW system as a part of Japan’s immigration regime. But the SSW system has essentially worked as a worker retention mechanism for Japanese employers utilising the TITP. Almost all industries the SSW system covers overlap with the TITP, leading to about 67 per cent of workers under the new system switching from the TITP. 

The SSW system has carved out a significant space as way to keep former technical interns in Japan, alleviating the rotational nature of the TITP and responding to employers’ requests for worker retention. 

Yet the SSW2 residence status has been almost completely non-functional. Initially, the fact that SSW2 essentially enables permanent settlement, including family reunification, for formerly lower skilled workers was highlighted as the most significant policy of the 2019 amendment. It was why the law has sometimes been equated with de facto formalising immigration policy. But there are only 37 SSW2 status holders so far. 

For its part, the Japanese government has moved to further reform the SSW system. In 2023, it expanded eligibility for the SSW2 by nine further industries — originally only workers in shipbuilding and construction could obtain the more favourable status. More recently, the government announced four new industries would be added to the SSW system while also significantly upgrading admission targets. For the next five years, Japan is aiming to admit 820,000 additional foreign workers under the expanded SSW system. 

Whether Japan will reach this target depends on two factors — diversifying the pool of potential SSW participants to include more direct entries and foreign graduates from Japanese vocational schools, as well as how the recently approved reforms to the TITP will be implemented. The latter aims to establish a work training system in lieu of the TITP by 2027. 

This would curb workers’ human rights abuses and bureaucratically align the TITP closer to the SSW. But the plans also include more stringent regulations, such as language requirements for potential SSW switchovers, which could hamper worker mobility. Again, how these policy changes are implemented in the government-designated transition period until 2027 will be key. 

At its five-year mark, the 2019 Immigration Control Act amendment has constituted incremental, but not fundamental, reform. Considering the miniscule uptake of the SSW2 status, the words of late former prime minister Shinzo Abe have held true — the reform has not constituted formal immigration policy. 

But given the recent uptick in admissions and the already-announced expansionary reforms, the SSW system — in combination with a reformed TITP — is set to be the primary vehicle for Japan to admit low- and medium-skilled foreign workers. More far-reaching reforms beyond the SSW system are necessary if Japan is to become a true country of immigration, which looks unlikely under the current status quo

Maximilien Xavier Rehm is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University, Kyoto.

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