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A dearth of foreign technical interns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to deal a heavy blow to Hiroshima Prefecture’s oyster industry.

An entry ban put in place in the wake of the pandemic has prevented many of the trainees from arriving in Japan, depriving local seafood firms of a key source of labor they depend on to peel and process oysters.

Although the ban is set to be partially relaxed, prospects remain dire, a manpower shortage unavoidable. The harvest of oysters begins this month, and local businesses are still concerned they will be forced to scale back shipments for this season.

“We’re running out of time. We just don’t have enough people, but there’s nothing we can do,” said Yoshiaki Teranishi, 62, president of a Hiroshima seafood processing firm known for shipping raw and fried oysters.

The firm, based in Hatsukaichi city, was counting on the arrival this fall of six new technical interns from China and Vietnam, to prepare for the peak of the oyster season. But none have come as scheduled, due to the travel ban.

At the moment the company has 13 trainees who have continued with the firm since last year, but four have said they wish to return to their home countries when their contracts expire at the end of the year.

“If the situation continues, we will have to downsize our production,” Teranishi said.

At another Hiroshima-based fishery firm, in the city of Kure, things are no better. The company had been expecting three interns from Indonesia to arrive in September, but with that prospect uncertain it has been forced to make do with a staff of nine — five Indonesians and four Japanese. That is nowhere near enough manpower.

“There is a chance that shipments will decrease,” said Yoshihiro Nakano, the 62-year-old president of the firm.

The Technical Intern Training Program was launched in 1993 with the aim of helping workers from developing countries acquire technical skills while working in Japan. The idea is to allow them to impart the knowledge and expertise they have learned in Japan to their compatriots once they return home.

But in reality the program has often been used as a way to provide manpower for labor-hungry sectors within Japan such as agriculture, fishery and forestry. Many oyster businesses, too, rely on the program as a source of labor.

As of the end of 2019, there were about 410,000 foreign trainees across the nation, including 17,649 in Hiroshima Prefecture, where their population has risen 65% over the past five years.

The government eased the travel ban from this month to help the pandemic-battered economy recover. Its initial plan is to allow the entry of some interns, exchange students and mid-to-long-term stayers — including medical practitioners — but to retain a ban on tourists.

Even as the ban is lifted, the number of arrivals will be capped at about 1,000 a day. This is a far cry from the pre-pandemic level of daily arrivals, which, according to the Justice Ministry, averaged about 6,000. The restriction suggests it will be some time before foreign interns are able to come to Japan as they did before.

The harvest of oysters in Hiroshima starts officially in October and peaks in November.

“We’re worried how to get through the upcoming busy season, but will do our best to secure enough manpower so that consumers can enjoy the delicious taste of our oysters,” said Nakano, who doubles as the head of a local association promoting oysters yielded in Kure.

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published Sept. 30.

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