After a hard day’s work at a blast furnace in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, Vietnamese trainees cheered as they watched a recent World Cup soccer match on TV.

A cooperative association in Kawaguchi supporting overseas trainees and technical interns had installed the TV in their dormitory in time for the finals cohosted by Japan and South Korea.

By day, the trainees man blast furnaces and cupolas in Kawaguchi, a city of 470,000 once known as “cupola town” and a symbol of Japan’s economic recovery after the devastation of World War II.

“Many blast furnaces have gone under, largely due to the manpower shortage in recent years,” said an official of the local casting industry association. “About 10 companies shut down each year on average.”

Condominiums for commuters to Tokyo have been built on sites where factories once stood.

The Kawaguchi casting industry overseas trainee cooperative, or Kaikenkai, is located in the city’s five-story industry and cultural hall. The hall doubles as a dormitory for 70 Chinese and 32 Vietnamese trainees and technical interns working at blast furnaces in the city.

In 1960, more than 600 blast furnaces were operating in Kawaguchi. As of the end of March, there were only 169 left. The number of furnace workers has decreased to some 1,700 from a peak of more than 20,000.

Nguyen Van Minh, 30, came to Japan in July 2000 with his brother, Nguyen Dung Tien, 33, to work at Maruyasu Co., which produces parts for automobiles and oil compressors.

The company has 13 workers, six of them Vietnamese. Its president, Mitsuaki Sakurazawa, also serves as chief director of Kaikenkai.

“Japanese youngsters do not stay long. The better ones only last about three months,” said Manabu Sakurazawa, 37, Maruyasu’s executive director and Sakurazawa’s son-in-law.

Minh starts work at 7 a.m. He prepares a cupola and works at a series of blast furnace processes. Furnace temperatures inside can reach 1,500, and operating them is sweaty work.

“It’s very hot, especially in the summer, but I’m getting used to it,” Minh said.

Tien is a molding specialist. The brothers said they plan to work at Maruyasu for one more year and then return to Ho Chi Minh City to work at a forge.

“Vietnamese interns are skilled workers,” the company’s executive director said in explaining his satisfaction with the arrangement. “They are willing to work overtime. Thanks largely to them, we are still able to stay in business.”

Dinh Si Tan, 31, a finishing specialist at Nagai Kikai Chuzo Co., plans to return soon to Vietnam after completing his three years of training in Japan.

Tsutomu Saito, 60, the Nagai Kikai factory manager designated by the government as a “master-hand,” said: “Tan finishes both small and large objects with precision. Losing him will be a huge setback for us.”

Tan came to Japan on the recommendation of the president of a company at which he worked in Vietnam. But Tan said he is unsure whether he will return to the company after he returns home because of the low salary there.

Ho Dang Hung, 28, heads the finishing work at Maruyasu. He came to Japan after he was told that, with overtime pay, one can earn 170,000 yen to 180,000 yen a month.

Many of the Vietnamese trainees come to the country for economic reasons, as well as to be trained in more advanced technologies. Salaries in Vietnam are as low as one-twentieth of those in Japan.

Since 1991, Japan has accepted some 450,000 people on one-year trainee visas. They can stay on for two more years as technical interns in 59 different job categories.

In fiscal 2000, technical interns numbered around 16,000. About 69 percent of them were Chinese, 17 percent Indonesian, 8 percent Vietnamese and 3 percent Filipino.

Trainees receive an average of 79,000 yen per month, while technical interns get 122,000 yen.

A senior member of the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo) said the overseas workers are now indispensable for small and midsize businesses across Japan as cheap labor.

But the trainee system has its problems.

An estimated 3,000 technical interns overstayed their visas in 2001, and some 2,000 have run off since 1993.

“Many Vietnamese trainees choose to overstay their visas in Japan because they have no hope of landing a good job with good pay in Vietnam,” Sakurazawa said.

A scandal of a different sort occurred in 1998, in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture. Directors of a marine products processing association there pocketed part of the salaries for their trainees. The association was dissolved after the directors’ actions came to light.

Tadao Tosa, a representative of the Choshi marine products purchasing cooperative, which succeeded the disbanded body, said: “We cannot survive without the Chinese workers. Big Japanese companies have shifted production overseas because of cheap labor, and the logic is the same for us.”

But he added that current problems need to be addressed. “Six or seven Chinese trainees have run off. We want Chinese organizations that send trainees to Japan to take more responsibility for such incidents.”

Six Vietnamese trainees have run off since 1999, when Kaikenkai began accepting Vietnamese workers.

Because of the incidents, the Vietnamese government last year prevented four firms from sending trainees to Japan for six months.

“We need a new system allowing overseas trainees with higher skills to work in Japan immediately after finishing their training in Japan,” Sakurazawa said. “The bottom line is that we must open our doors wider to foreign labor under certain rules.”

As for Hung, he plans to give up blast furnaces and open a karaoke restaurant with four fellow Vietnamese trainees after returning home. “We have sufficient funds,” he said after watching the World Cup match.

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