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Foreign workers are becoming more essential to aging Japan, but they can be vulnerable in an unfamiliar land, so various stakeholders — the central government, municipalities, companies and support groups — need to work more closely together to foster a more inclusive environment.

That seemed to be a broad consensus among lawmakers, experts, companies and public officials who participated in a Tokyo forum on Monday, who in particular pointed out problems surrounding foreign workers on the controversial Technical Intern Training Program.

They said young technical interns can be isolated from their local communities because their interactions tend not to extend beyond the work sphere.

“The lives of (technical interns) are not really visible in our community. This is quite a serious problem,” said Masayoshi Shimizu, mayor of the city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture.

The city hosts domestic production bases for Subaru Corp. and is home to about 12,000 foreign residents.

“In most cases, they are just going back and forth between work and their dormitory by bicycle or bus,” making it tough for the municipality to reach out to them, said Shimizu.

Toshihiro Menju, managing director at the Japan Center for International Exchange, a Tokyo-based think tank, said that he has heard of cases in which technical interns never really spoke with people outside of the plants where they were working during their three-year program.

“It’s truly unfortunate. I believe there should be community-wide efforts to welcome those young talented individuals,” said Menju, stressing that not only companies but also municipalities need to be involved.

He said some municipalities invite them to coming-of-age ceremonies to make them feel they are part of the community.

According to the government, Vietnamese accounted for more than half of technical interns, at 218,727, as of the end of 2019.

As many Vietnamese come to the country because they like Japanese culture such as anime, they want to enjoy their lives here and make Japanese friends, said Phi Hoa, a Vietnamese who heads Tokyo-based firm One Value Inc., which helps Japanese firms enter the Vietnamese market.

“But that’s not really the case,” as they tend to communicate only with Vietnamese through social media, she said, adding that Japanese society is still somewhat closed to foreign nationals.

In the meantime, she lamented the high crime rate of Vietnamese compared with other foreign nationals in Japan in recent years. National Police Agency data shows that Vietnamese accounted for 35.8% of crimes committed by non-Japanese in the first half of this year.

She warned that some technical interns who have lost or will lose their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic may commit crime, calling for more robust support infrastructure for such individuals.

The Monday forum was held as a launch event for a new aid group for foreign workers called the Japan Platform for Migrant Workers Towards Responsible and Inclusive Society (JP-MIRAI).

The group, which has been jointly launched by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Global Alliance for Sustainable Supply Chain, consists of companies such as Toyota Motor Corp., Miki House Co. and Asics Corp.

By attracting members from diverse fields, JP-MIRAI will be able to spot more issues among foreign workers and come up with more effective solutions, JICA said. It will also roll out a website and an app to collect input from foreign workers as well.

Some company officials that attended the Monday event said the new body will help them better understand the situations that foreign workers are facing.

For instance, some technical interns are troubled with heavy debt, as they paid unreasonably high commissions to brokers in their home countries.

“Companies that accept them can’t really find out (this kind of thing) beforehand” and the root causes of such problems cannot be solved by just one company, said Taizo Ueda, a senior official at Miki House.

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