Last week the Japanese foreign ministry tentatively suggested that language proficiency be connected to long-term visas. Now, the first (and natural) reaction would be that "oh, another ploy to keep as many foreigners out of the country as possible", but this really does not seem to be the case. Instead, is seems the purpose is the opposite, making it easier than before to gain a long-term visa as a way to promote language fluency, and to have more long-term immigrants be proficient in the language.
The announcement was very careful about emphasizing that it would not make it more difficult to gain visas for non-speakers than it already is today; instead the purpose is to make it easier for those who do gain Japanese proficiency to stay. The article in Japan Today gives as an example lessening the required work experience for engineers if they have attained a certain level of language fluency. Other sources have implied that the term length of visas to be granted could be affected as well; several kinds of visas (like spouse of a Japanese national) actually come in several terms - like six months, a year and three years - before they need to be renewed, and one suggestion is apparently to give proficient speakers the longer-term visas earlier.
This is actually a very good idea, and one that I suspect they can get very broad support for. It hits all the right buttons for a lot of people: liberals will like the prospect of making it easier for committed people to stay; the right-wing nationalists will love the idea of making the Japanese language a requirement for anything; business interests will like the broadening pool of skilled employees being made available. And for us foreigners - yes, it's a good thing for us too. Remember, the idea is not to make it more difficult than it already is if you don't know Japanese (and to be fair, Japan is really not that difficult, visa-wise, compared to a lot of countries), but you get a real, substantial benefit if you do choose to spend all that time studying.
All statements are very vague, but the general consensus seems to be (and I agree) that this really is a preparative step in accepting more long-term immigration in response to the shrinking workforce. And - coming from a country with a large number of immigrants - since many of the problems associated with immigration stem in part from a lack of language ability, making this a condition is only prudent. It's not like Japan would be particularly exceptional if this was enacted either; Canada, for instance, gives you a bonus both for knowing English and French if you want to move there.
And really - people who are indifferent or negative towards a country do not spend years studying its language. The kind of people that willingly go through with something like that are enthusiastic, even passionate, about it, and should be exactly the kind of people you'd want to encourage to come.
I think this plan may actually be further along than the articles say and than people think. The article in Japan Today above specifically mentions the JLPT as the test to use for measuring proficiency, and there's what seems to be quite solid rumours that the JLPT is being redesigned right now, with a new, intermediate level between level 2 and the top level 1. A long-standing criticism of the test has been that the jump from 2 to 1 is very large, and that level 1 tests a lot of things that aren't very useful in daily life. The redesign is rumoured to add an intermediate level, while possibly push the current level 1 a bit further still. Another rumour - less reliable - hints at the test will be given twice a year rather than just once. The new test is apparently due to be tried out this summer and deployed for real in 2009.
As it happens, an intermediate level above level 2 would be perfect as a "proficient" level for work-related purposes. Level 2 itself is still a little on the low side, while the current level 1 is overkill in several ways. Having a "pre-1" that focuses on proficiency in practical use and making level 1 a real nerdcore test of obscure language points would both make for a better test and fit nicely with these visa plans. And, of course, making the JLPT count for visa determinations means you need to give the test reasonably often so that people don't get left hanging. The rumours of giving it twice a year thus fit in nicely as well.
If the new test is now designed to be rolled out in spring 2009, then that would give textbook authors time to create new study materials and give the test administration a year - a spring session and a winter session - to iron out any problems if the new immigration law is adopted in the spring Diet session a year from now and implemented from April 1st 2010. Time will tell, but I hope it'll happen.