Japan unveils new strategy to attract foreign talent

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Published on 2023-03-08 at 06:46 by Asaël Häzaq
Here's some good news for prospective expats. Japan is opening its doors to foreign talents. The country is currently faced with a critical situation, with an aging population and growing economic tensions. Supporting growth through immigration has thus become an urgent priority. To attract and, above all, retain foreign talents, Japan announced its intention to simplify immigration policies.

Simplifying the process allowing the entry of foreign talent 

Two new pathways have been designed to make it easier for foreign talent to come to Japan. At least, that's Japan's new strategy to gain attractivity. The Ministry of Justice recently introduced the Japan System for Special Highly Skilled Professionals (J-Skip) and the Japan System for Future Creation Individual Visa (J-Find), two tailor-made visas for skilled professionals and highly qualified graduates. These two new systems will come into effect in April, just in time for the beginning of the recruitment season. And yes, in Japan, the school and professional year start in April.

The J-Find visa 

The J-Find is intended for job seekers having graduated from the world's top universities. Eligibility criteria for this visa are based on the top 100 of the QS Top Universities List, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities. According to the government's rationale, the aim is to attract "high-potential young professionals". These students will be able to stay in Japan for two more years to look for a job. They must have at least 2,000,000 Yen (about $14,722) when they arrive in Japan -- the government wants to ensure they can support themselves. These graduate students will also be allowed to bring their families to Japan under certain conditions.

The J-Skip visa

The J-Skip is intended for researchers, engineers, and executives. These applicants will be able to avoid the current system. Like Canada, Japan has developed a points-based visa system that allows eligible applicants to be automatically considered suitable for a highly skilled professional visa. For your information, the current system recognizes applicants with 70 points as being eligible for a HQP visa. 

Foreign talent can escape the points system if they meet several conditions. Researchers and engineers will have to earn about 20 million yen a year ($147,000), have a master's degree and at least 10 years of experience. Senior managers must have at least 5 years of experience and an annual income of 40 million yen (about $230,000).

The J-Skip visa offers other significant benefits. After only one year, foreign talents will enter the "professional level 2", thanks to which they will be able to stay in the country without any time limit and professional restrictions. Their spouses will be able to work full-time.

Japan intends to become more competitive globally

Japan seems desperate to attract skilled foreigners. In February 2022, the Japan International Cooperation Agency sounded the alarm. The government needs to bring in immigrants quickly. According to the agency, there will be a shortage of 6.74 million foreign workers by 2040 (compared with 1.7 million today) and already nearly 800,000 by 2030, particularly in the information technology sector. Hence, the government believes the solution lies in this new, simplified access to work. The executive branch is very confident in its new strategy. Hirokazu Matsuno, former Minister of Education, now Secretary General of the Cabinet of Japan, welcomes these new systems that should establish "preferential treatment for people with high-level abilities."

The Japanese administrative system has often been criticized for being too cumbersome, with documents difficult to understand by the applicants, too often only in Japanese. The exchange methods are also considered obsolete or complicated, usually through post mail, and even fax. There's also the precious "inkan" seal that acts as a signature, which can be made for a small fee -- but foreigners are still required to know "kanji" to be able to open the right door. 

But while the J-Find and the J-Skip were designed to simplify the process for immigrants, Japanese experts and entrepreneurs fear a new challenge.

The tricky Japanese immigration system

In April 2019, two new types of visas were introduced and are still in effect today. At that time, Japan intended to recruit at least 340,000 foreign workers by 2024, but today, it's quite clear that the numbers are unlikely to be reached. COVID may explain only some of the results because the introduction of these new visas caused controversy.

In 2018, as Japan was developing its new immigration policy, it boasted openness and promised spectacular advances. However, Japan isn't historically a land of immigration! The country still wants to improve its reputation in the eyes of the world, knowing that it is the only way to gain attractivity. The first visa, launched in April 2019 (limited to 5 years), was aimed at medium-skilled foreigners who can speak Japanese. It does not offer permanent residency and does not allow family reunification. The second visa was intended for highly qualified foreigners and offered them many more advantages than the first one in terms of length of stay, permanent residence, family sponsorship, etc. Foreigners' associations denounce a system that was unfair and lacks protection for holders of the first visa. They also pointed out the problem of many foreigners on trainee visas being exploited by their employers.

Finding the right solution was complex for the government led by Shinzo Abe at that time. How to reconcile the conservative ideas of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been heading the country almost since its inception (the party was created in 1955), with the dire need for labor? The rightmost-wing voices in the party hinted at the idea of encouraging robotics rather than immigration. And international media took up the idea and applied it to all of Japan.

Japan keeps looking for the right formula to attract skilled expats

The truth about Japan is far from robotic folklore. Behind the openness to immigration lies an identity issue that has long been redefined by the government. Successive leaders have shaped an "ethnically homogeneous" Japan by deliberately excluding certain populations, such as the Ainu and other ha-fu (half-breeds). That was an erroneous vision, which Japanese people are increasingly rejecting.

Japanese researchers and entrepreneurs are calling on the government to reconsider their political agenda if it wants to avoid experiencing once again a brain drain towards Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States. Why would skilled foreign professionals go to Japan if he or they can go to a country where he or they will have fewer difficulties settling down and communicating? Researchers are very critical of a country that, in their view, is failing to welcome the waves of foreign workers that it has called upon at various times in history.

Even when faced with an acute labor shortage, Japan still struggles to welcome all immigrants properly. This is what the 2019 visas show. The new J-Find and J-Skip will have to prove themselves. From the local population's perspective, there is a willingness to acknowledge the need for foreigners. A 2018 survey already showed that 59% of Japanese considered foreigners an asset to the country. But the country has yet to offer them the proper reception and living conditions to convince them to stay. 

This is a challenge for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The government looks to attract more foreign talent, and researchers recommend choosing more qualified profiles (especially in Asia), even if they do not come from world-class universities. For their part, entrepreneurs seek new tax benefits for foreign workers to counter the weak yen.

Immigration could be the answer to the demographic issue in Japan

The following figures remind us of Japan's urgency to respond to the demographic issue. According to official figures released in February, Japan lost nearly 800,000 inhabitants last year. Causes were the rising mortality rate, partly due to the COVID crisis, and the significant drop in the birth rate. A month earlier, Kishida conceded that he was "on the verge of not being able to maintain a functional society and that in this context, immigration is considered the miracle solution. And it is actually up to the government to find the right strategy to make the country a desirable expat destination and seduce more foreign talent in the long term.

Useful links:

JapanGov: the Government of Japan 

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA): visas

MOFA: work visas

Immigration Services Agency of Japan