Commentary / Japan

Japan opening doors more widely to foreign professionals

by Takashi Konno

Contributing Writer

According to Justice Ministry statistics, the number of foreign residents in Japan hit a record 2.56 million as of last December. The latest statistics compiled by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry show that 46 of Japan’s 47 prefectures saw an increase in the number of foreign residents as of January this year. Foreign residents have now become a familiar presence not just in the Tokyo megalopolis but also in other regions around the country.

It is frequently reported in the media that this increase has been driven by the rise in the number of students from overseas and technical intern trainees. But in fact foreign human resources with professional knowledge and skills are also growing.

At the end of last year, foreign residents with “engineer/specialist in humanities/special services” status — a typical qualification for staying in Japan for people with knowledge and skills equivalent to those of university graduates — numbered about 189,000, up 69 percent from the 112,000 in 2012. This increase compares favorably with that for foreign students (72 percent) and for technical intern trainees from overseas (81 percent) over the five-year period.

Many foreign media reports about Japan tend to portray Japanese businesses as being closed and reluctant to accept talents from overseas, or focus on such negative aspects as the language barriers and labor practices, including long working hours. In its attempts to dispel such negative aspects, the government is engaged in an awareness-raising campaign for businesses with examples of those hiring highly skilled foreign professionals breaking new ground in their business, and promoting work-style reforms to develop a work environment more attractive for such foreign professionals.

In fact, the mindset of Japanese firms is drastically changing these days. According to a Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) survey released in March, 61 percent of the 3,195 companies polled have either hired non-Japanese employees or intend to do so within three years. Among large enterprises surveyed, 80 percent either hire foreign employees or wish to do so.

Of the 1,451 respondents, 32 percent have non-Japanese among their executives and/or department managers.

Last year, officials of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, including those of our regional branch bureaus, visited 130 companies across the country that have employed highly skilled foreign professionals or wish to do so. It was found that irrespective of their business sector or their size, many of the firms have created new business opportunities by proactively hiring and promoting non-Japanese talent.

The case of Rakuten Inc., which made English its official language, is widely known abroad, but small and medium-size firms that hire talented foreign employees regardless of their Japanese-language ability are emerging around the country these days. Among them are HDE Inc., a provider of cloud security services, EAMS LAB Co., which specializes in industrial design, research and development of robotic systems, and Nose Seiko Co., Ltd., a bearing maker in Osaka.

Many companies are deeply engaged in developing their work environment so foreign staff can work comfortably by improving their welfare services, including setting up prayer rooms and offering halal cafeteria food, standardization of and manual preparation for business processes and reviews of performance-assessment systems, as well as not requiring Japanese-language ability.

Thus, the “closed Japanese company” is becoming a thing of the past.

The government is also pushing for measures to help enable skilled foreign talent to play more active roles here. If they are recognized as highly skilled foreign professionals by the Immigration Bureau, their spouses will be allowed to work in Japan and they can bring their parents here under certain conditions. Some of these foreign professionals can apply for the right of permanent residence if they have stayed in Japan for at least a year.

In its growth strategy this year, the government committed drastic reviews of measures that were taken to improve the living environment for non-Japanese, such as multilingual counseling services for those encountering various problems in their life here and better Japanese-language education for them.

Next fiscal year, an integrated program to provide information and advice for foreign professionals seeking employment is scheduled to be launched by JETRO.

Last year, Japan had a record 28.69 million inbound tourists. Such upcoming events as the Rugby World Cup next year and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are expected to attract even more visitors. This will likely expand opportunities for foreign talent to give full play to their skills in various areas, including inbound tourism business as well as support services for foreign residents. They can also ply their capabilities in attractive companies that lead the world in their respective fields.

Blessed with top-level, safe and clean cities, a rich and plentiful natural environment, reliable public transport systems, living costs that compare favorably with the world’s major cities, enchanting food and pop culture, Japan is equipped with an environment where people from overseas can be assured of a comfortable life. Japan and its businesses are evolving day by day. I would sincerely welcome many more foreign professionals coming to play active roles in our society.

Takashi Konno is director of the Technical Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau.