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Japan's foreign intern program balloons as industries seek labor

Straying from original mandate, now 79 fields are eligible to accept trainees

A Vietnamese technical trainee works in a factory in Japan's Gunma Prefecture. Many businesses outside major urban centers rely on the program to meet their labor needs.

TOKYO -- With Japan's foreign technical trainee program extending to a total of 79 fields as early as this year, the initiative seems to be becoming less about supporting developing countries and more about securing manpower for short-handed companies.

The Technical Intern Training Program is intended to provide foreign workers with on-the-job training at Japanese workplaces. The official goal is to contribute to the international community by cultivating talent and providing technical expertise to developing countries.

The program was limited to 17 fields when it first launched in 1993, but has gradually grown to cover 77, including plastering, welding and fishing. Industry groups propose further additions to the list, which must be approved by a government panel of experts.

The list grew by at most one field per year between 2009 and 2012. But it has expanded more quickly in recent years, with three more areas -- most notably nursing care -- included in 2017. The labor ministry will add pickle production as early as September, and linen supply services are set to join the list as well.

As the program's scope widens, its original purpose of spreading know-how is more likely to fall by the wayside. The All Japan Tsukemono Federation of Cooperatives, a pickle industry group, cited a need for pickle makers in such countries as China in its request to the ministry. But it also acknowledged that the industry needs more young workers.

Japan is growing increasingly reliant on foreign labor as its population shrinks. About 258,000 people were in the country on technical trainee visas at the end of October 2017, roughly double the number five years earlier. In all, Japan employs around 1.28 million foreign workers -- nearly as many people as are engaged in temp work.

This comes against the backdrop of a historically tight labor market. The ratio of job openings to job seekers reached a 44-year high of 1.62 in June. With prospective employees facing more options, areas with lower wages outside big urban centers are having trouble attracting workers.

"There are a lot of jobs for which [the training program] is nothing more than a way of dealing with a labor shortage, and the 'international contribution' is just a pretense," said Nihon University professor Jiro Nakamura.

The government extended the maximum length of the training program to five years from three last November. It plans to introduce a new type of visa as early as next April, which will allow interns who have spent at least three years in the program to work in Japan for another five years without further testing. These steps go to show the severity of the labor crunch.

The government has opened Japan's doors much wider to foreign workers of late. But if it does not also take steps to bridge cultural and language gaps and encourage Japanese society to accept them, the often harsh working conditions that trainees already face may grow even worse.

The labor ministry inspected 5,966 sites employing foreign technical interns last year and found legal violations such as excessive overtime or nonpayment of wages at 4,226 of them -- a fourth straight record high. If Tokyo fails to address these problems, exceptional foreign talent will choose to go elsewhere.

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