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Specially Appointed Associate Professor Philip Streich, Human Sciences Program


Dr. Philip Streich & Dr. Viktoriya Kim
Specially Appointed Associate Professors
Human Sciences Program

"The new Specified Skills Visas, One Year Later"


perspectives_in_202004_subpage1It feels strange to discuss migration in early March 2020, as fears of the novel coronavirus spread across Japan, companies are asking employees to work from home, the number of cancelled public events piles up, and public schools are closed for a month. To top things off, the government just announced that it would temporarily stop Chinese and South Korean visa holders who are outside of Japan from re-entering the country, so the government is more concerned about stopping people from coming in at the moment. Yet, the coronavirus will eventually subside and Japan will need to get back to the business of trying to attract foreign workers.

On April 1, 2019, two new visa categories for foreign workers, known as Specified Skills (tokutei ginō, 特定技能) Visas, went into effect in an attempt to help alleviate severe labor shortages across several sectors. The government added these visa categories for 14 sectors, including construction, agriculture, hospitality and food service, and healthcare such as nursing and elderly care.

The first category, Specified Skills Visa 1 (SSV-1) is for laborers with lower skills and less work experience, mostly providing manual laborers for the construction, food service, and agricultural sectors. These visa holders can stay up to five years and cannot bring their family members with them. Intern trainees from the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) are also able to apply for this first category of visa.

The second category, SSV-2, is for those with a higher level of skills and experience. This visa can be renewed indefinitely and allows its holders to bring their spouses and children, as well as the possibility permanent residency after 10 years.

Both categories require that applicants pass a specified skills test or have experience in their field and possess a minimal level of basic Japanese language ability (N4 or N5) on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

When they passed the legislation for these new categories in early December 2018, officials had hoped that the total number of individuals admitted in these two new categories would go into the hundreds of thousands, possibly reaching 40,000 in the first year and nearly 345,000 over the first five years. However, as of September 2019, only 376 visas in the new categories had been approved, with about 2,000 additional visa applications under review in mid-October 2019. By the end of 2019, the number of approved applications was only around 1,000.

It’s bewildering that the gap between reality and what the government publicly predicted is so wide. Did they attempt any research? There are a lot of people who want to come live to Japan. People across the globe are attracted to Japanese food, movies, and anime. Another appealing factor is Japan’s reputation as one of the safest countries in the world. A 2015 Pew survey of the Asia-Pacific region showed that a median of 71% of respondents held a favorable view of Japan, with positive views outweighing negative views by a ratio greater than 5-to-1.[1] Moreover, a 2018 Pew survey showed that a majority of Japanese people (59%) now feel that migrants are a good thing for the country and will make it stronger.[2]

perspectives_in_202004_subpage2If the government truly wants migrants to help with the country’s labor shortages, then it needs to make the skills and language requirements for these visa categories even easier. Learning Japanese is difficult for low-skilled workers, who are generally busy working and scraping enough money together just to get by. For anyone not currently enrolled in a university, it might be near impossible to get Japanese lessons. And those who graduate from university (where language lessons are more available) might want something more from the education investment than a job in construction or food service.

The five years maximum and no family also makes the SSV-1 visa less attractive. Requiring even minimal language skills and some basic work skills in addition might just make it too unattractive for most people to bother applying.

The language requirement and skills test for the lower visa category should be dropped, and the government should require that companies provide on-the-job skills and language training to new migrants after they arrive. If this does not result in more applications, then the government should additionally consider dropping the five-year cap and the restrictions on family members for the SSV-1.

Migration will never keep the Japanese population from declining overall – Japan would need tens of millions of migrants rather than hundreds of thousands to do this – but Japan can ease the pain of economic decline that will result from acute labor shortages, including the financial burden that will fall on workers supporting the retired, by letting in as many migrants as possible. The opportunity lies within the government’s grasp should they want it.



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