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Japan immigration

High-tech services help Japan's foreign workforce settle in

Fintech, image recognition and bilingual bots make for smooth moves

NTT Docomo technology is used in this smartphone app that helps people with strict dietary requirements determine the ingredients of packaged food. (Image courtesy of Halal Media Japan)

TOKYO -- Living abroad comes with its own problems. Simple tasks once taken for granted -- like buying a car, finding housing, and eating the right food -- can become annoyingly complicated.

Companies in Japan have taken note and are rolling out a host of technology-based services to help the country's growing foreign workforce settle into their new environment.

Trading house Sojitz recently launched a used-car business targeting foreign workers that employs fintech to assess creditworthiness, even if a buyer has no credit history in Japan.

Prospective customers at the Easy Car Ride dealership in Anjo, Aichi Prefecture submit their personal information and work history, after which the fintech system quickly assesses their loan application. If approved, the dealership -- operated by Sojitz Auto Group Tokai, a joint venture between Sojitz and used-car company Million Auto Service -- offers a car loan from affiliated financial institutions.

But the system goes beyond that: If the borrower falls behind in loan payments, the car's engine can be remotely disabled until delinquent bills are paid.

Not having a credit history in Japan means that foreign workers with modest incomes have to pay cash when buying a car. And without access to loans, they usually choose the cheapest models.

But since Easy Car introduced the fintech system, five- and six-person minivans priced between 2 million and 2.5 million yen ($18,500 to 23,000) have become the biggest sellers for this customer segment.

Anjo is the ideal location to launch the service. The car manufacturing hub is home to Toyota Motor and has the second-largest population of foreign workers in Japan after Tokyo.

Easy Car Ride sales staff, left, assist a customer in Aichi Prefecture.

Sojitz envisions a network of fintech-driven used-car dealerships across the country, but it first wants to vet the accuracy of the system at the Aichi Prefecture location.

The number of foreign workers in Japan doubled in five years to hit a record 1.46 million in 2018, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. And with the recently introduced working visa program gaining traction, this number is expected to rise.

New arrivals can also have problems with food. Muslims, vegetarians and others with strict dietary requirements often have to puzzle over unfamiliar ingredients in an unknown language to figure out which packaged foods are suitable to eat.

To help them, mobile service provider NTT Docomo has developed image recognition technology for an app that analyzes product labels to judge the suitability of food. Users snap a photo of a product -- or shelf of products -- with their smartphone, after which the app determines if the food is appropriate.

The company states that the app is "especially timely" as the number of foreign visitors to Japan continues to grow.

Then there is housing. Many landlords are still reluctant to have foreigners due to fear of them skipping out without paying rent and by tenants not observing Japanese customs.

AtHearth, a Tokyo-based housing startup, caters almost exclusively to foreigners. Since launching in 2014, it has helped over 1,600 foreign nationals find housing.

Company founder and CEO Tomonari Kino says many of his clients work at technology companies that are keen to hire foreigners, such as e-commerce giants Rakuten and Mercari. AtHearth helps the new hires find places to live by brokering contracts and coordinating communication between landlords and prospective tenants before they arrive in Japan.

The company uses a bilingual English-Japanese chatbot for much of its client communication, and plans to expand the system to handle Chinese, Korean, French, Indonesian and Vietnamese.

All payments are done via credit card, however the company is hoping to add more online options, including Alibaba Group Holding's Alipay.

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