National / Politics

Japan’s justice minister apologizes for erroneous data on foreign interns, blaming Excel mishap

by Sarah Suk

Staff Writer

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita apologized Tuesday over errors to data related to foreign technical interns and how they were presented. However he denied claims by opposition lawmakers that the mistakes were intentional and aimed at facilitating ongoing debate over a controversial bill that will introduce more blue-collar foreign workers to the country from April.

Yamashita also said he has set up a project team within the ministry to examine the operations of the Technical Intern Training Program and recommend improvements to any problem areas identified.

“The mistakes in compiling data, based on interviews (by security officers) of interns who fled their jobs, that came to light recently shouldn’t have happened and I express my sincere apologies,” he told a news conference.

“People have pointed to problems involving the Technical Intern Training Program ever since its introduction (in 1993), including some cases of violation of labor-related laws and regulations, such as nonpayment of wages to interns and paying them lower than the minimum wage, as well as the disappearance of interns,” Yamashita noted.

He claimed the errors arose due to incorrect data calculations in the Excel spreadsheet software. The data were from a survey of interns who had abruptly left their jobs before November last year, when a new law on proper implementation of placements under the Technical Intern Training Program came into force.

The Technical Intern Training Act is designed to reinforce the supervision and management of organizations that train interns. It also introduced punishments for human rights violations against trainees.

According to copies of interview records the ministry showed to some lawmakers, many complained of long working hours and low pay. The records included a case where an intern was paid ¥100,000 per month for 100 hours of work per week at a farm — 40 hours more than he was told beforehand.

The Justice Ministry had earlier said that about 87 percent of interns who left their jobs said they were seeking better wages, but corrected that to instead say that about 67 percent had, in fact, fled due to low pay, after opposition Diet members pointed out that the records did not contain any wording that indicated the interns were seeking better pay.

Yamashita said the expression had been used by the ministry around the summer of 2015 to explain the circumstances of fleeing interns. He went on to say that it was then copied and pasted onto future documents, including those shown to a group of Diet members in June and at the ongoing extraordinary parliamentary session — where the bill to expand the acceptance of foreign workers in Japan to include blue-collar workers, in job areas where there is a serious labor shortage, is being discussed.

“I am sorry that (the ministry) has shown to lawmakers and others documents that include incorrect data and expressions, and that I gullibly believed such inappropriate documents and as a result gave incorrect explanations in the Diet,” the minister said, adding that he will make any corrections as needed.

The project team, which held its first meeting Monday, is headed by Parliamentary Justice Vice Minister Hiroaki Kadoyama and includes members of the minister’s secretariat as well as the Immigration Bureau.

Staff writer Sakura Murakami contributed to this report.