TOKYO -- In the competition to recruit much-needed foreign talent, South Korea's work permit program is beating that of Japan's system.
In raw numbers, Japan's 1.08 million foreign workers edge out South Korea's 960,000. But South Korea's population of 50 million is less than half of Japan's, making its proportion of foreign workers more than double that of its neighbor.
Foreign workers had entered through the Industrial Training System, which was similar to Japan's current Technical Intern Training Program. But Seoul replaced the framework with a broader Employment Permit System in 2004, which let in 480,000 nonprofessional workers.
Among that number, South Korea granted regular work permits to 260,000 people from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and 11 other nations under bilateral agreements. They generally work in agriculture and at small to midsized manufacturers. In contrast, Japan is taking in only 210,000 technical trainees.
"The number of nonprofessional workers accepted accelerated after the introduction of the Employment Permit System," said Koji Sano, a professor at Fukushima University who is an expert on South Korean labor policy.
What sets apart foreigners working in South Korea is the sheer number who can speak the language. Some 220,000 people were recruited through the special work permit system -- among them ethnic Koreans from China as well as other foreign nationals of Korean heritage. They are found in service sectors, such as restaurants and nursing care.
Meanwhile, the language barrier prevents Japan from recruiting and retaining a significant number of talented foreigners.
On the other hand, the 210,000 foreign students in Japan who are working dwarf the 13,000 in South Korea. Furthermore, 80% of these students have joined the labor force in Japan while the same can be said for only 10% in South Korea. The 46,000 foreign-born specialists in South Korea also trail those in Japan.