TOKYO -- As Japan's shrinking population drains both growth prospects and the worker pool at home, local restaurant chains rely on foreigners not only for labor, but also as a source of talent for expansion abroad.
Ten Allied, an operator of 120 izakaya-style pubs, began training sessions for foreign staff working part-time this summer to teach them the intricacies of Japanese conversation, body language and other cultural concepts. But the classes are taught by a full-time Vietnamese employee rather than Japanese staff, giving the lessons a unique viewpoint.
The company has about 2,800 part-time employees at chains like Tengu Sakaba. About 900 are foreigners, 80% of whom are Vietnamese. President Eita Iida said the company converted the second floor of a Tokyo store into a training center last year with plans to hire more foreign workers.
Japanese restaurant chains face sluggish growth as the country's population declines and staff become harder to find. A Nikkei survey of 224 restaurant companies found that 19.6% intend to hire more foreigners for full-time positions, up from just 8.7% two years earlier.
Foreign employees also are beginning to play a role in overseas growth. Yoshinoya Holdings promoted Chinese employee Lu Yi, who was working part-time, to a full-time position in 2009. After building experience in Japan, he was transferred to a Chinese subsidiary in September 2018. The beef bowl purveyor needs talent with experience in Japanese service and products to support its expansion into the inland area.
Foreigners occupy 31 full-time positions at Yoshinoya, six more than in fiscal 2017. Though few part-time staffers have been elevated to regular positions, it will be essential for restaurant chains to hire employees who can support their overseas expansion while the domestic market contracts.
At Colowide, operator of Japanese barbecue chain Gyu-Kaku, about 60 of 180 new hires this year are foreigners. They were transferred to the company's Vietnamese subsidiary to manage procurement and restaurants there.
"We are counting on staff that are knowledgeable about both our stores and local affairs," said Yoko Kuroyama, general manager of human resources management.
Yet restaurant chains have complained about being unable to promote high-performing part-time foreign workers to full-time positions as the hurdles are high for switching student visas to work visas. Those employed in the food industry require a "specialist in humanities or international services" visa.
Though the government looks to expand the fields where foreigners can work, a new residency status under consideration for 2019 would be valid for only five years in certain industries and essentially prevents workers from bringing family overseas.
While they do not expect to procure full-time employees for the long term, Japan's convenience store operators and the General Japan Franchise Association are requesting that the government create a new visa for these workers and add their industry to the country's Technical Intern Training Program. The Japan Foodservice Association is also exploring eligibility requirements for restaurants to be included in the foreigner training program.
About 12% of Japan's foreign workers, or 157,866 people, were in the hospitality and food service industries as of October 2017, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
The strategic shift among restaurant operators signals that companies are now more interested in recruiting talent rather than just securing labor.