Japan Makes Changes to Attract Needed Workers and Deport Failed Refugee Applicants

On June 9, Japan made two notable changes to its migration-related policies and laws. First, Japan’s cabinet approved the expansion of the country’s blue-collar visa to allow workers in nine more sectors to renew resident permits indefinitely, a move welcomed by Japan’s business community. Second, the upper house passed a controversial immigration bill permitting authorities to forcibly deport refugee applicants. Despite the growing number of foreigners in Japan, the country lacks a holistic immigration system. Rather, it has fragmented and often contradictory migration policies overseen by various government bodies.  

Opening door to more long-term workers 

Japan’s Specified Skilled Worker (SSW) program is divided into type one and type two visas. The type one visa allows foreigners with specific skills and some Japanese language ability to stay and work in Japan for up to five years. The type two visa, which will enable holders to renew visas and bring their families to Japan, was previously limited to the construction and shipbuilding sectors, with nursing sector visa holders eligible for a separate long-term residency qualification. Now, visa holders in nine more sectors will also be eligible for the type two visa, which provides an avenue for permanent residency, unlike the type one visa.  

But these changes do not guarantee that Japan will attract enough foreign workers to fill job vacancies. A March 2023 study from Tokyo-based think-tank Recruit Works Institute found that the country could face a shortfall of more than 11 million workers by 2040. As competition for migrant labour is increasing in the region, Japan’s weak yen, low wages, and sometimes difficult working conditions could make other nearby destinations – including South Korea and Taiwan – more attractive. 

Now possible to deport refugees  

More controversial are the new changes to Japan’s already strict refugee screening process. While the recently passed immigration bill created a new category of “complementary protected persons” to allow those fleeing violent conflict to reside in Japan, the country’s definition of “refugee” remains limited to the UN Refugee Convention, covering people being persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a social group. Deporting those whose refugee applications are rejected twice will also become possible. In contrast, before, the government could not deport anyone who had or was applying for refugee status. This is a change the government claims will improve Japan’s treatment of applicants by reducing frequency and time spent in detention centres awaiting approval. Critics within and outside Japan, however, say the change could endanger applicants who, if forced to return to their countries of origin, would be vulnerable.