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As the decade-long economic slump grinds on, non-Japanese Asians studying in Japan face diminishing job prospects amid language and cultural barriers, a lack of information, a hermetic corporate culture and competition from native students.

In 2001, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry launched a panel of experts to discuss ways to improve the situation. According to Yutaka Nada, the labor ministry’s section chief for employment service for foreigners, the panel looked into ways to build a network that would share job information among universities, corporations, related ministries and nonprofit organizations that support foreign students.

Nada said the panel plans to continue considering ways that information such as corporate demand and job guidance could be shared via such a network. Support groups for job seekers believe not enough information is made available and that companies need to be more welcoming to foreign graduates.

“The number of foreign students increases every year, but society is not yet ready to accept them,” said Fan Bao, vice president of Waseda International Student Support Center (WISS), a nonprofit organization that helps foreign graduates hunt for jobs.

According to support groups, native speakers of English have an edge over non-Japanese Asians when applying for jobs at U.S. and European firms in Japan.

Japan took in a record 78,812 foreign students in 2001, up 23.1 percent from 64,011 a year earlier, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Ministry said.

However, only 2,689 foreign students received working visas in 2000, according to the most recent figures available from the Justice Ministry. It’s meanwhile not clear how many foreign students pursue a profession in Japan with the ultimate goal of staying in the country and working for a Japanese firm.

More than 90 percent of Japan’s foreign student population comes from other parts of Asia, particularly China, South Korea and Taiwan, the education ministry said.

The number of Asian students studying in Japan has continued to grow, although numbers fell briefly in the late 1990s, when the Asian financial crisis overshadowed the region’s economy.

The rising trend has been partly backed by a government project to have 100,000 foreign students studying in Japan by the beginning of the 21st century — a deadline it failed to achieve. The long-term project was set up to lift the disproportionately low ratio of non-Japanese students among overall students in Japan to a level on a par with other industrialized nations.

The nation’s universities, struggling to maintain student numbers amid Japan’s shrinking population, are showing an increasing willingness to accept foreign students.

Cultural hurdles

Adhering strictly to the curriculum is not enough to ensure a job, as foreign students face a number of cultural barriers once they graduate.

“Many foreign students don’t know how to start Japanese-style job-hunting activities,” said Akiko Nishio, an officer in charge of employment guidance at the Tokyo Employment Service Center for Foreigners, an arm of the labor ministry.

Most Japanese companies do not regularly recruit foreigners, something that many foreign students are unaware of, according to Nishio. And many companies end their recruiting drives more than a year before students’ graduation, she said, adding that job-hunting in recent years has tended to start and finish even earlier.

“Many (foreign students) don’t know what to do or who to ask for advice,” said WISS’s Bao, a native of China and a Waseda graduate school student who has lived in Japan for seven years.

According to Bao, one of the major problems the students face is the lack of information about companies that want to employ foreign graduates as well as the types of jobs available.

The situation partly reflects the gap between students’ chosen fields of study and corporate demand.

The most recent figures available show that nearly 70 percent of positions vacant at the Tokyo Employment Service Center are for engineers. Some 27 percent of foreign students registered at the center are science majors, while the remaining 73 percent are liberal arts majors, Nishio said.

The government limits its issuance of working visas to those who have obtained a job using their own expertise, in areas that include, for example, system engineering, marketing or financing, or to those who have a job using their native languages, including teachers, translators and those involved in global trading.

Students majoring in economics, tourism, social welfare and international relations often have a hard time finding a job, Nishio said.

Another obstacle faced by job hunters is ageism. Many Japanese firms will not employ people over a certain age, even though there is a nonbinding law urging firms to refrain from age discrimination.

Kim Sang Wan, a 27-year-old South Korean studying multimedia at a vocational school, said, “We can hardly get a job when the company has an age limit for applicants, as many foreign students are older than their Japanese counterparts.”

In the case of South Koreans, male students often come to Japan to study after completing military service, and many foreign students work for a number of years in their home countries to save enough money to afford the tuition and living costs in Japan, he said.

Japanese companies customarily train young Japanese college graduates to become generalists, ensuring them a position, or various positions, until they retire.

Some foreign students suspect racism is at play at Japanese firms.

“I guess (foreign students) are less trusted (by Japanese firms) than the Japanese,” Kim said.

Although there is a demand for multilingual skills in trading and other globally oriented businesses, many firms still hesitate to hire non-Japanese, Nishio said.

“Some companies will not even look at applications from foreign students,” she said. “I want to strongly urge companies to open their doors to them.”

While some firms acknowledge that employing foreigners can boost diversity and creativity, and thus aid their global competitiveness, many of those suffering amid the stagnant domestic economy say they cannot afford to hire them, even if the companies consider the employees dispensable.

Many Japanese firms hire foreigners only if they bring unique benefits.

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of Chinese workers employed by Japanese firms, Nishio said. The Chinese graduates are trained in Japan, where they learn Japanese management methods and quality control, before being sent to the firms’ factories in China, where salaries are much lower.

Tacit understanding

But the firms are not solely to blame, Nishio said, because foreign students must acquire a high level of Japanese-language ability and a thorough understanding of the culture to work at a Japanese company.

One of the characteristics of Japan’s corporate society is “tacit understanding,” a manner of implied communication that is often unclear to many foreigners, according to Hisao Tanaka, director of the Koganei campus of Hosei University who has long been in charge of foreign and other students’ employment issues.

“Basically, there is often friction between what the companies require and how foreign students behave,” Tanaka said.

Command of Japanese is the priority when recruiting foreign students, according to electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

This year, Matsushita began employing foreign graduates on an equal footing with their Japanese colleagues. In the past, the firm only hired foreign workers on a contract basis.

Most of the roughly 10 foreign graduates that began work in April are Asian, the company said.

A Tokyo-based midsize maker of computer peripherals said foreign applicants need to possess technical expertise and a good command of Japanese. The firm said it has employed several foreigners, including one Asian.

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