Japan’s industries are ready to hire foreign workers, but concerns remain

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

More than 345,000 blue-collar foreign laborers are expected to enter Japan within a five-year period starting from fiscal 2019, but expectations as to their status and potential appear to differ significantly between the industries they are set to join.

Some simply consider them labor, while others see them as having the potential to become more versatile employees.

In the restaurant industry, which is projected to take in around 41,000 to 53,000 laborers, major companies have reiterated their willingness to embrace foreign workers.

“Our company is not facing a severe labor shortage at this point, but we are ready to hire them as employees since we have already been hiring foreign-exchange students,” said a spokesman for Zensho Holdings Co.

The firm is Japan’s biggest restaurant corporation, and operates the Sukiya and Nakau beef bowl chains as well as 18 other cafe and restaurant brands.

Out of Zensho Holdings’ 127,000 employees, foreign workers currently account for 7 percent — many of them Chinese and Vietnamese. The company has produced training manuals and videos in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Nepali, said the spokesman.

Another major beef bowl chain, Yoshinoya, has bilingual trainers for foreign workers whose level of spoken Japanese or experience living in the country is insufficient for them to work comfortably.

“Many foreign workers speak good Japanese, but to make sure that they fully understand the rules and procedures of our company we provide bilingual trainers to give explanations in their native languages,” said a Yoshinoya spokesman. “We have a solid system and environment for handling foreign workers.”

But Shigeru Ishii, a spokesman of the Japan Foodservice Association, stresses that the restaurants need to treat incoming foreign workers as “potential” skilled workers, and nurture them until they reach the level where they can become executive managers.

“What the restaurant industry is facing now is not just a labor shortage, but a lack of senior managers who can operate restaurants,” said Ishii. “Within five years of working in Japan, they (foreign workers) can absorb a sufficient amount of knowledge to become the executive managers of Japanese restaurants when they go back to their home countries.”

Ishii added that the labor issue that results from Japan’s rapidly graying society is not just about quantity, but also quality. “The restaurant industry is often called a manager industry because whether or not restaurants survive often depends on the skill of their managers.”

The government officially bans unskilled foreign workers from employment in the country, and the two new working visas that will be issued will require foreign applicants to possess “a certain skill” to work in 14 selected industries, including construction and farming.

In the nursing-care sector, which will be absorbing the largest share of laborers, with 50,000 to 60,000 new hires expected, it is clear that extra labor is crucially needed.

But Hiromi Ogata, a senior supervisor in the elderly welfare department at Setagaya Ward Office in Tokyo, said this will not quickly improve the situation.

“It takes extra money and effort to take in and manage foreign workers, and only big nursing care corporations can afford it,” Ogata said. “Many small nursing businesses are unlikely to be able to see it as an option.”

The population of over 65s in Setagaya tops all 23 wards in the Tokyo metropolitan area, with 182,918 as of October — or 20 percent of its population.

Sanae Toso, president of the Asitaba home-visit nursing care company, voiced concerns regarding whether foreign workers are truly skilled enough to care for patients in Japan.

“The nursing care industry unquestionably needs more pairs of hands, but high-level communication skills and sophisticated Japanese-language abilities are a must, especially when it comes to home-visit nursing care,” said Toso.

The government has not revealed whether home-visit nursing care will be included in the program. Currently, trainees eligible to perform home-visit nursing are those who have obtained nursing licenses and have passed the N3-level Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

“Taking foreign workers will not create a paradise. It will a take long time for such systems to become accepted in Japan,” said Ogata.