Foreign resident Kim Min-joong is expecting his working holiday visa to soon be replaced by a new type Japan introduced in April to bring in more workers.

“Two years in school are not enough to master Japanese cuisine. Thanks to the revised law, I believe I will have more time to learn cooking techniques and gain good experience,” the 23-year-old South Korean said at a teppanyaki (iron griddle) restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

Given the rapidly graying population and declining birthrate, Japan created the Specified Skilled Worker No. 1 status to cope with a chronic labor shortage in 14 sectors, including food service.

Out of 460 people who took exams for the new status in Tokyo and Osaka in late April, 347, or 75.4 percent — including Kim — passed the language and skills tests for the food service sector. Having moved to Japan while in high school due to his father’s job, Kim went on to study at a cooking school in Tokyo for two years. Interested in food since childhood, he has chosen to focus on teppanyaki.

“One day I hope I can open a teppanyaki restaurant in South Korea to spread Japanese food culture there,” said the Seoul native.

According to Tatsuya Murata, a manager at the Kisentei Tokyo Midtown restaurant where Kim works, it usually takes at least a year for apprentice chefs to get a chance to grill meat in front of customers. They initially start with food preparation, supporting the chefs and clearing away dishes.

“Communication skills in Japanese are needed because the cooks are supposed to chat with customers while grilling,” said Murata, who has trained Kim since April.

Shoji Murakami, head of the general affairs department at Ningyocho Imahan Co., which runs Kisentei, said the labor shortage has forced many of its sukiyaki and shabu-shabu (meat and vegetable hot pot) restaurants to turn away customers at times because they don’t have enough cooks and servers.

“We have missed opportunities because of a lack of manpower,” he said.

Two Vietnamese workers at Imahan passed the language exam and are applying for the visa. The government expects up to 345,000 people to qualify for the new status, including up to 53,000 in the food service sector. But critics describe that estimate as too optimistic, given the fierce competition for labor in the region.

Experts supporting foreign workers in Japan say the key to getting them to stay in the food business is to address the industry’s long hours and relatively low pay.

Megumi Sakamoto, a multicultural studies professor at Fukushima University, said turnover is high even among Japanese, meaning there is room for improvement — especially in wages.

Workers at ramen chain Hiday Co. formed a labor union in spring 2018 to prod the company into improving conditions, including wages. Of the 8,800 or so part-time workers at Hidakaya ramen shops, about 4,000 are non-Japanese. Many are believed to be union members.

Ippei Torii, chair of the board of the Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, stressed the importance of properly managing working hours at eateries, including at night. Hours and pay aside, however, language could be the biggest challenge in jobs requiring more than a few stock phrases.

Even Kisentei’s Kim, who has a strong command of Japanese after nearly six years in country, sometimes has difficulty. “Japanese words don’t come out of my mouth sometimes when I get nervous,” he said.

“A good grasp of Japanese is needed in the food service sector when serving customers, for example, or delivering” to homes, said Fukushima University’s Sakamoto.

Sakamoto said workers typically learn from textbooks but may find it difficult if they end up working in areas where customers speak in a local dialect.

The new visa has drawn 320 applicants since April, with only 20 accepted by the end of June, the Immigration Services Agency said. An agency official said it is not unusual for a change of visa status to take months, especially under a new system.

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