AKITAKATA, Japan (Reuters) - 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 aging 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 labor 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 program” often criticized as an exploitative backdoor to unskilled labor; 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.
Akitakata residents are divided on whether to attract more foreigners, though less wary than in the past.
A 2017 survey showed 48 percent of Akitakata residents thought it was “good” to have foreigners live in the city, up from 30.8 percent in 2010.
That was similar to the 45 percent nationally who backed Abe’s planned reforms in a November Asahi newspaper poll.
“I think our lives would be enriched with different cultures. But Japanese are not skilled at communication and language is the biggest barrier,” said Yuko Okita, 64, who works at her husband’s local taxi service.
Maia, 33, said that he got along well with locals - he is a member of a volunteer firefighter brigade - but that his half-Japanese daughter had been bullied at school.
A media report that Hamada set a numerical target for an increase in foreign residents, which the mayor called “misleading,” sparked a protest by a right-wing group from nearby Hiroshima.
Akitakata also may have a hard time attracting new residents of any nationality simply because it is remote and small.
“Akitakata is slow-paced. It’s not attractive for young people. But it’s a great place to raise kids,” said Taniuti, a father of two.
Gayeta, 22, a trainee at a car parts factory, said there was little to do in Akitakata after work.
“There is no place to go, just yama (mountains),” she said, mixing English and Japanese.
To be sure, little has changed in Akitakata since Hamada announced his plan.
The city has an office where a Brazilian resident offers advice in Portuguese.
Proponents want to improve Japanese-language teaching for foreigners and are considering how to use abandoned homes to house them.
Abe’s proposed legislation, which he wants enacted this month to take effect in April, would allow 345,150 blue-collar workers to enter Japan over five years in sectors like construction that are suffering from serious labor shortages.
Opponents say his proposal is hasty and ill-conceived.
The law would create two new categories of visas for blue-collar workers: one for those who could stay up to five years but could not bring family members; and another for more highly skilled foreigners who could bring families and might eventually be eligible for residency. Details are not spelled out in the law.
But the path to permanent residence is steep: one standard requirement is to live in Japan for 10 consecutive years, with exceptions for the highly skilled professionals Japan is eager to attract.
“The truth of the matter is the central government is not basing acceptance of foreign workers on the premise of long-term residence,” said Meiji University professor Keizo Yamawaki, who helped Akitakata draft its plan.
Editing by Gerry Doyle