OSAKA -- One day in early March, a 28-year-old woman from Canada was in the lobby of the Rihga Royal Hotel conversing with a guest in fluent Japanese.
Rachael Buell has been working for the hotel in Osaka since last year in the guest relations group, doing everything from guiding people through the hotel, making restaurant reservations and handling the other typical needs customers have. One of her colleagues said Buell speaks better Japanese than locals do.
She came to Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, a government initiative aimed at promoting international exchanges.
Although foreign-owned hotels making forays in Japan often hire staff from overseas, Royal Hotel, the Osaka-based operator of the Rihga Royal Hotel chain, is centered in Japan and mainly hires Japanese workers.
Looking to internationalize, the operator set its sights on the JET Program to tap its pool of young foreign nationals who have experience living and working in Japan.
Japan has seen a spike in foreign tourists in recent years, especially in major cities like Osaka. An InterContinental Hotel opened here in 2013. This year, a Conrad hotel -- part of the U.S.' Hilton Worldwide Holdings luxury hotel chain -- is scheduled to open in Osaka as well.
To attract international guests and compete with foreign operators, Royal Hotel needed to improve the English communication skills of its staff as well as hire foreign nationals.
The company initially attempted to boost the staffs' language skills by holding classes with a native English teacher. It also participated in a job fair in South Korea.
However, language skills alone are not suitable for hotel staff. It is extremely important to understand and exude the spirit of hospitality. Thus, the hotel decided to seek out JET Program staff in search of foreign personnel who fit the bill.
The Japanese government program recruits young people from the U.S. and Europe and dispatches them to assist in teaching English at elementary, junior high and senior high schools across the country and attend international exchange events.
Most of the participants have graduated from a university in America or Europe and are interested in Japan.
About 5,000 people from 40 countries participated in the program in the year ended March 2017. More than half were from the U.S., and many others came from Canada, Britain and Australia.
Royal Hotel employment recruiter Masumi Haritsuji took part for the first time in a job fair designed for the program's graduates in Tokyo in April 2016. Her aim is to find good prospects to hire to work in the guest relations group.
Haritsuji said she was nervous about whether people from the program would "be interested in working in the hotel industry." Her fears turned out to be ungrounded: A large number of graduates visited the hotel's booth expressing interest in interviewing for a job.
Haritsuji and her staff gave an introduction about the hotel and explained job descriptions at the fair. After that, the hotel conducted several interviews with applicants.
Many of the interviewees had worked as assistant language teachers in rural areas and were interested in Japan before they came to the country.
Of the 10 or so applicants, Royal Hotel hired one person each from America, Canada, Australia and China in 2016. The Australian woman said she loves onsen hot springs and Japanese festivals.
Royal Hotel's Buell originally worked as an English-language assistant teacher at kindergartens and elementary and junior high schools in Tenei village in Fukushima Prefecture, in northeastern Japan, for five years.
She taught the alphabet at the kindergartens, and at junior high schools, Buell used English textbooks to prepare students for senior high school entrance exams.
Her daily interactions with Japanese people of various ages gave her the ability to communicate in Japanese with great flexibility.
"Teachers and hotel staff are similar in that they are required to handle various situations," Buell said.
Although her initial task at the hotel was mainly to take care of foreign tourists, Buell said she now tries to actively engage with Japanese guests.
Of the six foreign nationals who joined Royal Hotel this spring, one is from the JET Program. The hotel plans to hire another four from the program this autumn.
Haritsuji said she "hopes to make connections with foreigners who want to stay in Japan for a long period of time."
Royal Hotel is planning to hire two or three more people from the JET program in the spring of 2018 as well.