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Japan immigration

Japan Inc. rushes to hire overseas talent as border reopens

Concerns arise over another COVID wave and higher costs

Rakuten Group hopes that it will become easier to hire foreign talent as Japan opens up to business travel again. (File photo by Yukinori Okamura)

TOKYO -- As Japan takes steps to reopen borders for business travelers and students, a number of companies are taking the opportunity to ramp up recruitment of foreign talent amid a shrinking labor force.

Messaging app provider Line is gradually resuming midcareer recruitment from overseas while also looking to hire fresh graduates from India and the U.S. "We are making preparations to resume new graduate recruitment starting from our summer internship program in 2022," a spokesperson for the company said.

In a major shift for a country that had banned all new arrivals since the beginning of the year, Japan on Nov. 8 eased restrictions on entries of business people, foreign students and technical trainees. The quarantine period was cut short for those with vaccination certificates and the government is also looking to raise its daily entry cap from 3,500 to 5,000 people.

Line is not the only company rolling up its sleeves for the chance to acquire foreign talent.

Japanese e-commerce heavyweight Rakuten Group is also anticipating that the rules around hiring overseas staff will be eased, which will help the company expand its workforce.

Nikkei Asia reported last week that Mercari, Japan's largest online marketplace for secondhand goods, is also planning to step up the recruitment of foreign engineers.

Human Holdings, operator of job sites for foreign workers and students, said that inquiries from Japanese companies about global talent have increased since the beginning of this month. One of its group companies, which sends foreign engineers to Japan, has also felt the impact of the country's reopening.

"With the easing of restrictions, companies are hoping to hire foreign engineers in fields that are difficult to find domestically," the company said in a statement, noting that demand is high for engineers skilled in areas like artificial intelligence, data science and cloud services.

Apart from startups that seek tech-savvy talent, old industries such as manufacturing, which often need engineers from overseas for production sites, have also welcomed Japan's reopening.

Shuichi Ishibashi, global CEO of Bridgestone, said that cross-border interactions have been "very limited" in the past two years. "It would be very appreciated if more and more restrictions on borders will be lifted," he said.

A shorter quarantine period upon arrival in Japan is expected to help. Miyuki Ishihara, president of aluminum producer UACJ, said that the company was planning to increase overseas travel.

Foreign students will be the main source of young, skilled workers for Japan as it deals with its shrinking population. (Photo courtesy of Persol Global Workforce)

However, there are still concerns about another wave of COVID-19. Companies are also worried about uncertainties over the length and complexity of the travel application process.

Tokyo-based Persol Global Workforce, a consultant for foreign human resources, pointed to a problem in a statement: "There are cases where a foreign talent has received vaccines that are not approved by the Japanese government and therefore individual measures will be necessary."

The company also said that costs could increase significantly. "There could be a steep rise in airfare if the number of people entering the country increases at the same time," the company said.

Yet, the low birthrate and aging population mean that attracting more foreign talent is key to sustainable economic growth. The Ministry of Internal Affairs says that Japan's working age population, 15- to 64-year-olds, will fall to 54% in 2040 from 60% in 2017.

Tokyo Institute of Technology Associate Professor Yuriko Sato is encouraged by the thought of foreign students returning, saying that they are "the main source of promising young highly skilled talent."

According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, around 30,000 foreign students obtained employment qualifications last year. Retail, recruiting, information and communications, and restaurant and other service industries are the major employers.

These industries face labor shortages and are in need of highly skilled talent to promote innovation.

Sato points out that both foreign nationals and their employers are still anxious about a potential ban on new entries in the future if there is a resurgence in COVID infections. "Up to 5,000 entries per day is still very small and limited," she added.

Going digital and working from home could help companies to solve this problem.

AI Inside, a Tokyo-based startup that helps companies convert physical documents into electronic data using artificial intelligence, accelerated online recruitment during the pandemic by conducting interviews via video calls and allowing new employees to work from their home countries.

Around 20% of its employees are foreign nationals from 11 countries and four of them work overseas. All employees have the choice of working from home.

"We don't really consider borders as barriers," said a representative from the company. "No matter what the border situation is, we'll continue hiring talent both overseas and home to globally expand our business," she added.

Additional reporting by Wataru Suzuki

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