The official number of foreign workers in Japan has surpassed 1 million for the first time, thanks in part to aggressive employment by regional companies and small businesses to cope with the labor shortage.
While these firms, though few and far between, are breaking new ground with their hiring, it remains unclear how the government wants to go about allowing in more foreign workers as it works out a new policy.
Juroku Bank, Ltd., based in Gifu Prefecture, last April hired two Chinese who had been studying at a university in Nagoya.
It was the first time for the company to hire foreign bank clerks, and came as part of a new personnel strategy to deal with the growing number of visitors to Japan.
Zhang Yijun, 26, has been assigned to handling remittances and other duties related to foreign exchange matters at one of the regional bank’s Nagoya branches. Zhang can get by in everyday Japanese-language conversations but is still learning from co-workers about banking and handling customers.
Zhong Shouzhen, 29, meanwhile handles foreign exchange matters at the bank’s head office in the city of Gifu. She struggles with polite Japanese expressions but hopes to get involved in business mergers and acquisitions in the future.
“I want to be an intermediary for Chinese and Japanese companies,” Zhong said.
A manager in the bank’s personnel section said: “The two of them had the power to carve out a life in Japan from scratch, and we have expectations that they will prosper in various ways.”
Tran Hong Kien, 28, from Vietnam, has been working for Yoshimoto Factory, a metal-processing firm in Ome, western Tokyo, since last March. He studied mechanical engineering at a top university in Vietnam.
“I was impressed by the high technical competence in Japan,” said Kien, who is tasked with running a lathe under instructions from senior workers at the company, which employs 25. “If possible, I would like to remain living in Japan.”
“It is difficult for a company of our size to employ Japanese students in science and technology, and recently it has been especially tough,” said the company’s president, Makoto Yoshimoto, adding that it’s hard to compete against larger companies for the most talented graduates from Japanese universities.
Yoshimoto noticed many diligent and outstanding students when the company started conducting business in Vietnam several years ago. Twenty applicants responded to the company’s job listings, but only two, including Kien, were hired.
Many foreign workers have also been working at small businesses but for low wages, brought to Japan under the government’s skills acquisition program that critics say is a cover for hiring cheap labor. These workers often return home just when they get used to their jobs, which are usually based on three-year contracts.
Yoshimoto said: “For the two Vietnamese this is regular employment with the same salary as for Japanese. I won’t mind if they work here until they retire.”
According to a survey by employment information company Disco that covered 630 firms nationwide, 38.1 percent employed or planned to employ foreign students in fiscal 2016, while more than half — 59.8 percent — expect to hire such workers in fiscal 2017.
The percentage of foreign workers who were recruited after graduating from overseas universities is expected to rise from 18.9 percent in fiscal 2016 to 32 percent in fiscal 2017. Disco said small and medium-size domestic companies that are little known to students are starting to recruit college graduates from abroad.
There were 1.08 million foreign workers on the official books at the end of October, up 19.4 percent from a year earlier, according to a survey by the labor ministry.
This was the first time the 1 million milestone was passed since 2008, when the ministry first started collecting statistics based on hiring reports by businesses.
The government has been promoting employment of foreign nationals with advanced skills and knowledge, but in reality, trainees under the skills acquisition program have been fueling the growth.
The latest ministry data show that program trainees grew by 25.4 percent to 211,108, outstripping specialized professionals, who increased 20.1 percent to 200,994. The number of students working as part-timers jumped by a robust 25 percent to 209,657.
The government, faced with a declining and graying population, is exploring the ramifications of accepting more foreign workers.
A debate is underway among lawmakers and bureaucrats over whether to expand the scope of businesses that can hire foreign nationals as regular workers to cover glaring shortfalls in the agricultural and construction industries, not just highly skilled professions.
But many in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition have expressed concern that throwing the doors open further for foreign workers would lift the lid on a Pandora’s box of immigration troubles.
Even labor unions, despite a desire to defend the rights of foreign workers, are wary of their influence on domestic employment and are against their easy acceptance into the workforce.