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Japan immigration

At a Tokyo lounge, jobless foreigners find shelter from the storm

Staffing agency provides pandemic-hit workers place to check job postings and eat bento

A job seeker is assisted at Tokyo placement center Gowell Town. (Photo by Hikariko Yazaki)

TOKYO -- The pandemic has been particularly harsh for foreign workers in Japan. Many lost their jobs when businesses shut down and have struggled to find new ones. 

One staffing agency in the capital has stepped up to provide support by freeing up its lounge. Since its opening in May, the space, called Gowell Town, has become a refuge of sort for unemployed foreigners seeking new job prospects or simply someone to talk to.

The lounge is offered by Gowell, the operator of a job search website catering to foreign workers. When it first opened, "many people who lost their jobs or got job offers rescinded because of the pandemic rushed to get here," said Hidekazu Matsuda, Gowell's president. 

Located in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district, the space is staffed with counselors and hosts workshops, with its walls covered with job postings. It features a work area, a lounge and a microwave. The lounge also doubles as a free job center.

A 30-something woman from Thailand was among those who have come to rely on the lounge. "I can't find a new job because of coronavirus," she lamented during a visit in late July.

She was working at a restaurant until March. But "just as I was thinking about getting a tourism-related job, the pandemic hit," wiping out work in the industry, she said.

She has shifted her target to tech companies and sent her resume to numerous employers to no avail. "I wish companies didn't judge me based on my Japanese proficiency. I'm a dedicated worker and can write and read Japanese fine," she said.

"I've been coming here since its opening," said a 20-something Vietnamese man who left his job at a nursing home in March out of concern about his employer's financial future. Gowell Town has "offered me a place to go," he said.

With a serious labor shortage before the pandemic, many businesses are still looking for workers. Data entry service provider City Computer hired a Nigerian man referred by Gowell as a full-time employee in July. "As I interviewed him, I could see he was bright," said Sumiyuki Kawahara, president of the Wakayama Prefecture-based company. "Nationality doesn't matter to our hiring and presents us with an opportunity."

Foreign workers doubled over the past five years, with over 200,000 people from other countries working in the hotel and restaurant service industries in Japan as of the end of October 2019, according to the labor ministry. But a complicated system of visas, requirements and restrictions presents a high hurdle for foreign nationals to find a job.

Utilizing talented personnel motivated to work in Japan will give businesses "diversity and vitality," said the manager of Gowell Town.

At the end of 2019, Japan had roughly 410,000 "technical trainees" who work in construction, farming and manufacturing, and about 270,000 engineers and white-collar workers with college degrees or similar qualifications.

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