National | Regional voices: Chubu

South Korean students flock to Japan as birthrate sinks and unemployment climbs

Chunichi Shimbun

More and more highly educated young people from South Korea, which like Japan has a rapidly graying population and needs more foreign labor for its economy, are coming to Japan because it’s difficult to find work at home.

Amid high youth unemployment driven by hiring cutbacks at industrial conglomerates, South Korea has become a new source of foreign workers for Japan.

In mid-April, some 40 South Korean job seekers signed up for interviews at a job fair in Nagoya’s Nakamura Ward where 17 Japanese firms in the high-tech, manufacturing and retail industries were looking for prospects.

“I’m attracted to Japan’s recruitment culture,” said a 24-year-old senior at a private university in Seoul. Speaking fluent Japanese, he said he learned the language himself and attended a Japanese job fair in Seoul when he was a sophomore.

While South Korean companies tend to focus on qualifications and language proficiency, he felt Japanese companies seemed to hire job seekers based on their potential and personality.

The student also said he was attracted to the corporate training system in Japan. To increase his prospects, he holds regular Japanese study sessions with other students hoping to work in Japan to improve his language skills.

“I want to work in a Japanese tech company and develop my skills,” he said.

The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), which organized the event, started supporting students looking to work abroad in 2014 as part of the government’s policy for coping with rising joblessness among youth.

The agency helped 2,653 Koreans obtain jobs in a five-year period until 2018, and 817 — roughly 30 percent — were hired in Japan. That’s the highest ratio among all countries and is continuing to climb, the agency said.

Although diplomatic relations between the two nations are chilly, many attendants at the Nagoya fair said Japan is popular because of its pop culture, particularly movies and anime, and its geographical proximity.

According to Statistics Korea, the national statistics office, the unemployment rate last year for people aged between 15 and 29 was 9.5 percent, compared with 3.8 percent overall and 3.6 percent for Japanese 15 to 24.

Most South Koreans in difficulty are university graduates. In South Korea, many graduates aspire to land jobs in big companies, given the large wage gap between the industrial conglomerates known as chaebol, and small firms. However, many major firms are scaling back on new hires and shifting to outsourcing or nonregular workers to strengthen their global competitiveness.

At the same time, South Korea’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman is estimated to give birth to in her lifetime — has dropped to a historic low. Last year, it dipped to 0.98 for the first time on record, according to Statistics Korea. That’s lower than the 1.43 Japan logged in 2017.

The low birthrate is leading to severe labor shortages in such sectors as manufacturing and agriculture, prompting the country to welcome more foreign workers.

“The root cause of the problem lies in employment mismatch,” said Yuichi Takayasu, a professor at Daito Bunka University and an expert on South Korea’s economy. “The policies of President Moon Jae-in’s administration to create jobs have not proven successful, and the rising unemployment rate is showing no signs of stopping.”

In the meantime, more Japanese companies aiming to do business abroad are eager to hire South Korean students.

“They have gone through fierce competition since their childhood to enter schools and they have high language skills in general,” said an official in charge of recruitment at a staffing agency in Nagoya.

KOTRA notes South Korean students have high skills not only in Japanese, but also in English. Among those who hope to work in Japan and take the widely used Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), over half score 805 or more, which is high, the agency said.

Some companies point out that South Korean students also fit in with Japan’s corporate culture.

“They have experienced military service and are disciplined,” said an official at a manufacturer in Aichi Prefecture. “They are good to work with, because they respect their superiors and are diligent.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published May 6.