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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

Long-term residents may face language test

Staff writer

The government may require long-term foreign residents to have a certain level of Japanese proficiency, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Tuesday.

The Foreign and Justice ministries will begin discussing the envisioned Japanese-language requirement, Komura said without providing further details, including when the talks will start or who would be subject to the obligation.

"Being able to speak Japanese is important to improve the lives of foreign residents in Japan, while it is also essential for Japanese society," Komura told reporters.

"I think (the potential requirement) would be beneficial because it would not only prompt long-stay foreign residents to improve their Japanese ability but also promote awareness among people overseas who are willing to come to (and work in) Japan to study Japanese."

A Foreign Ministry official in charge of the issue stressed that the idea is not exclusionary. "It is not about placing new restrictions by imposing a language-ability requirement," the official said on customary condition of anonymity.

Someone with high Japanese proficiency may be given favorable treatment in return, including easing of other existing visa requirements, he said. "(High Japanese proficiency) may actually make it easier to come and work in Japan," he said. "We want to provide incentives for foreigners to learn Japanese."

A Justice Ministry official said the discussions are neither intended to expand nor restrict the flow of foreign workers to Japan.

He also said the requirement should not be uniformly applied.

"We don't want to prevent talented foreign workers from immigrating," he said.

Some media speculated that the move is intended to expand the acceptance of unskilled foreign workers, given Japan's shrinking population and expected long-term labor shortage.

But the Foreign Ministry official said the government's stance — which is to issue work visas for foreigners applying for specific jobs that require particular qualifications while restricting foreigners seeking manual labor — remains unchanged.

According to the Foreign Ministry official, the two ministries hope to reach a conclusion on the matter within a year.

The idea of a language requirement emerged as part of the government debate on the conditions of a large number of foreign nationals of Japanese descent in such areas as Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a large population of Brazilians of Japanese descent.

Many such residents, who are often engaged in manual labor because they obtained ancestry visa permits that allow them to do so, are not covered by the social security system and their children are not enrolled in schools.

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The Japan Times

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