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As Japan considers allowing more foreigners, tiny rural town wants to go further

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Brazilian Luan Dartora Taniuti settled in the remote municipality of Akitakata in southwest Japan when he was nine. Leonel Maia of East Timor has been there nearly seven years. Filipina Gladys Gayeta is a newly arrived trainee factory worker, but must leave in less than three years. 

Japan’s strict immigration laws mean Taniuti, who has Japanese ancestry, and Maia, who is married to a Japanese, are among the relatively few foreigners the country allows to stay for the long term. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to pass a law this week that would allow in more foreign blue-collar workers such as Gayeta for limited periods. But Akitakata’s mayor, Kazuyoshi Hamada, says his shrinking community, like others in Japan, needs foreigners of all backgrounds to stay. 

The rural city has more than 600 non-Japanese, roughly 2 percent of its population, which has shrunk more than 10 percent since its incorporation in 2004. 

“Given the low birth rate and ageing population, when you consider who can support the elderly and the factories ... we need foreigners,” said Hamada, 74, who in March unveiled a plan that explicitly seeks them as long-term residents. “I want them to expand the immigration law and create a system where anyone can come to the country.” 

Japan’s population decline is well-known, but the problem is especially acute in remote, rural locales such as Akitakata. 

Hamada’s proposal to attract foreigners as “teijusha,” or long-term residents, is the first of its kind in immigration-shy Japan. Abe is pitching his plan as a way to address Japan’s acute labour shortage but denies it’s an “immigration policy.” 

“Hamada openly mentioned Japanese immigration policy and that is very courageous,” said Toshihiro Menju, managing director of the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo, a think tank. “Akitakata is kind of a forerunner.” 


The population of Akitakata, formed from the merger of six small townships, dropped to 28,910 in November from 30,983 in 2014. About 40 percent of residents are 65 or older. 

Car parts factories and farms are crying out for workers, many houses stand empty, darkened streets are deserted by early evening and the aisles of a discount supermarket are mostly empty by 8 p.m. 

Hamada says long-term resident foreigners are the solution. But integrating them will be crucial; many cities were unprepared for earlier influxes of foreign workers, experts said. 

Blue-collar foreign workers have typically arrived under three legal avenues: long-term visas begun in the 1990s for the mostly Latin American descendents of ethnic Japanese; a “technical trainees programme” often criticised as an exploitative backdoor to unskilled labour; and foreign students allowed to work up to 28 hours a week. 

The country had 2.5 million foreign residents as of January 2018, up 7.5 percent from a year earlier and about 2 percent of the total population. The number of native Japanese dropped 0.3 percent to 125.2 million in the same period, the ninth straight annual decline. 

Akitakata’s foreign population is about two-thirds trainees from places such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. Most are only allowed to stay up to three years. 

The rest are long-term residents, such as Maia, and Brazilians like Taniuti who stayed even after the global financial crisis prompted the central government to offer one-way tickets to his native country. 

“When I feared having no job, I thought ‘It’s enough if I can eat,’” said Taniuti, who five years later set up his own company, where his two brothers and father now work. 


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