TOKYO -- Foreign workers remain essentially blocked from many industries in Japan such as cosmetology despite the nation's critical labor shortage.
Most hairstylists from overseas who attend cosmetology school in Japan and earn licenses issued by the Japanese government must return home to practice their vocation.
"I want to live and work in Japan, but it's almost impossible for me to get a job as a hairdresser," said a 25-year-old Chinese student at a cosmetology school in Tokyo, discouraged by her grim job prospects.
The woman wanted to learn Japanese makeup techniques, so she studied in the country and passed the licensing exam. She then began thinking about working in Japan, only to realize that the country does not grant work visas to hairstylists.
An estimated 200 foreign nationals yearly earn cosmetology licenses in Japan. Many of them return to their countries to work, even as hair salons in some regions of Japan begin to experience worker shortages.
The number of Japan's new licensees -- domestic and foreign -- was 30% lower in fiscal 2017 than 10 years earlier, according to data from a testing prep center for barbers and beauticians. Some understaffed beauty parlors are closing.
"We're short on hairdressers by 20%," said Masakuni Hoshina, president of Taya, which runs 123 salons nationwide. "We want to make up for this by hiring foreign hairstylists."
With salon owners in urban areas leading the call for deregulation, Japan's government this spring proposed letting foreign nationals work as cosmetologists in approved areas, as part of a draft strategic growth plan for this year.
But the proposal vanished from the final plan released less than two weeks later in June, as Tokyo apparently gave in to pressure from a trade group.
The trade organization feared that hairdressers in rural areas would lose jobs to foreign peers. The group also expressed concern that foreign hairstylists might work for lower wages, reducing pay for Japanese colleagues as well.
Hairdressers and barbers already make 40% less than the national figure for all workers, with the average income for those at salons employing at least 10 staffers coming to 2.95 million yen ($26,408) a year.
Cosmetology schools do not buy the argument. "Hairstylists in other countries make more than in Japan. They won't work for lower wages here," one school official said.
Chefs serve as another group of employees having difficulty getting a work visa. Though they are eligible to apply, they need at least 10 years of kitchen experience for cuisines such as French and Chinese. This means international apprentices who aspire to become Japanese-food chefs do not qualify for visas.
Yet chefs are in high demand. The ratio of job openings to applicants for food preparation positions stood at 3.23 for fiscal 2017, far higher than the 1.38 figure for all industries, according to the labor ministry.
These difficulties for hairdressers and chefs reflect why Japan all but shuns immigration: People are afraid of losing jobs.
But licensed professionals who pass government-mandated exams can contribute to economic growth. Smaller businesses, which tend to be outside the big cities, are having trouble finding personnel. Rural areas face a bleak future without highly skilled workers to provide quality services.