Japan is grappling with the dilemma of foreign workers: the economy needs them badly, but many Japanese want to keep the door shut. According to the Justice Ministry's estimate, there were 740,000 transient foreign workers here at the end of 2001 - including those who illegally overstayed their visas - an increase of 30,000 from the year before. They account for only about 1 per cent of Japan's workforce - among the lowest levels of any industrialised nation. They began arriving in tsunami waves during Japan's economic boom of the l980s. They filled empty slots at factories, lumber mills and construction sites, taking the low-wage, dirty and sometimes dangerous jobs that young, unskilled Japanese workers used to fill. Today, most young Japanese would rather work in service sectors in big cities, creating the labour shortages in those shunned sectors. I visited Ooizumi town in central Gunma prefecture in the early l990s, where many highly educated Brazilians of Japanese ancestry were working in electronics and other factories. One, a medical doctor, worked at a bean sprout nursery, where he earned three times the salary of a doctor in inflation-ridden Brazil. He was planning to return home after two years, with enough money to open his own clinic. There are still 170,000 such Brazilians in Japan, making them one of the biggest groups of non-Japanese, non-permanent workers. Japan is still a land of opportunity for many foreign workers, both skilled and unskilled. Young Chinese and Southeast Asians work at factories of small and medium-sized manufacturers desperate for workers. Under a government- approved 'foreigner training programme', foreign 'trainees', typically in their twenties, can work for up to three years at relatively lower wages of up to 150,000-200,000 yen (HK$9,700-$13,000) a month. The number hired under this programme grew to 39,000 by the end of last year from a tiny number 15 years ago. Computer programmers, software specialists and other skilled professionals are flying in from India, South Korea and China, since Japan has relaxed the immigration requirements for workers in some labour-starved sectors. Sommeliers, or wine waiters, are the latest to have barriers lowered. But other doors still remain tightly shut. The country still imposes rigid requirements - letters and documents from sponsors, guardians and schools - for those applying for work visas. For certain job opportunities, there are plenty of qualified candidates abroad. The Philippines recently proposed Japan accept its certification for nurses and hire Filipinos, since the demand among Japan's ageing populace is sure to grow. In fact, Japan already has a shortage of qualified nurses: some provinces are able to hire only one-third of the number they want. Still, the Japan Nurse Association does not like the idea. Also opposed are other interest groups and conservative camps that dislike the very idea of foreign workers. But Japan's dropping birth rate is a fact of life. The workforce will soon be losing hundreds of thousands of citizens in the productive 15-64 age group a year, according to one government estimate. So, calls for a more welcoming approach towards alien workers have been growing within Japan. In a report early this year, the influential Keidanren, the Federation of Economic Organisations, recommended a transparent and stable system for accepting foreign workers. The Japan Chamber of Commerce joined the chorus this month, suggesting Japan should encourage the use of foreign workers as maids, caretakers and construction workers among other positions. The side-benefits of having more foreign workers - reducing Japanese insularity and bursting the illusion of self-sufficiency - would be a welcome new mindset for Japan.