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In line with the government’s campaign launched in 1983 to boost the number of foreign students in Japan to the 100,000 mark, the figure came to some 117,000 in 2004.

However, the number who switched from a student visa to a work visa that same year amounted to only 5,264, indicating only a negligible percentage of foreign human resources opt, or are allowed, to stay and work in the country.

The situation is largely due to the fact that despite government efforts to welcome students, the immigration and refugee law in principle denies visas to non-Japanese who lack special skills.

Isao Nakagawa, a professor of politics and economics at Takushoku University who specializes in movements of international labor, said Japan should aggressively accept foreigners who are highly capable in special subjects if it is to maintain domestic technologies.

He said Japanese firms will probably accelerate moves to shift production bases offshore as the nation’s manpower shortage becomes more serious as a result of the falling birthrate. This trend, he added, will have a serious effect on employment of Japanese.

Work visas are currently issued to applicants in 17 fields. Foreigners wishing to work in technical fields must be graduates of special colleges or have experience working in specialized areas for more than 10 years.

Dancers and other entertainers can acquire “entertainer” visas if they have engaged in the career for more than two years in their home countries. More than 80 percent of about 158,000 foreigners coming to Japan on work visas in fiscal 2004 were in the entertainment category.

Kentaro Iemoto, who at 24 is president of Tokyo-based information technology venture Clara Online Inc., recalled his frustration in 2004 when the Immigration Bureau refused to issue a visa to a South Korean engineer he wanted to hire.

Officials said the applicant did not fit into the IT business because he was not a science graduate. He majored in literature at a university in his country but became a specialist in communications while serving in the military.

Iemoto said the man could have immediately proved useful to his firm, which has 38 employees, including 15 foreigners.

The director of Tempstaff Universal Co. in Tokyo, 41-year-old Kazuyo Nozawa, said foreign students virtually have to seek part-time work in order to live in Japan, where prices are higher than in their home countries.

“They’re pretty much forced into going to school, working (part-time) and returning to their quarters,” Nozawa said. “Some of them grow tired (of that life) and go home.”

She also said many Japanese employers prevent foreigners from signing up for the social insurance system because they do not want to shoulder part of the cost of the insurance. They have not shed their tendency to pay low wages to foreigners, she added.

Tempstaff held a seminar for foreign students in Tokyo in February to teach them about Japanese “work customs.”

“If you arrive at work at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m.,” one speaker told them, “Your Japanese colleagues will think you have no will to work.”

Iemoto said a business can grow fast if employees from various countries put their efforts together.

He said he does not pay particular attention to nationality when he hires employees, since his company has business transactions with many countries. He called the government’s rigid traditional view about foreign workers and specialized skill sets anachronistic.

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