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Japan’s job market keeps foreigners stuck in temporary work for years

  • June 9, 2022
  • , Nikkei
  • English Press

EUGENE LANG, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Kyo, a 32-year-old Taiwanese woman, had lived in Tokyo for over six years before landing a permanent job at a clothing store. The job was not easy to come by, despite her graduating from a university in Taiwan and spending a year in Tokyo learning Japanese.


Kyo, who wanted to be identified only by her surname, worked as a temp at a sports retail chain for years after learning Japanese at a private university, but her contract needed to be renewed every three months.


During her time at the sports shop, an American colleague proficient in Japanese was forced to leave after her contract lapsed. Kyo realized none of her foreign colleagues were on the regular payroll. Despite being satisfied with her salary, Kyo decided to look for a more secure position so she could obtain permanent residency.


She finally received an offer for a permanent position — from her current employer, a Taiwanese company.


It is not unusual for foreign workers in Japan to struggle in their search for permanent employment, even if they have toiled in temporary full-time positions for many years, according to a Nikkei analysis of a 2021 government survey of Japan’s wage structure.


There are approximately 1.72 million foreign workers in Japan. According to the 2021 survey, in which 49,000 workplaces responded, 47% of foreign workers in full-time positions were classified as “non-regular staff,” such as temporary or contract employees. The percentage of non-regular staff with five to nine years of service, which does not include foreign nationals with short periods of stay in Japan, such as technical interns, was 36%.


But when Japanese staffers are included, only 16% of employees remained in temporary positions after working five to nine years in their jobs. These numbers illustrate that foreign workers are less likely to obtain a permanent position than their Japanese peers.


The survey also shows that permanent jobs generally pay much better. Foreign employees who have worked as “regular staff” for longer than 10 years averaged monthly salaries of 539,000 yen ($4,146), including bonuses and allowances. This is 2.2 times the level of those who have been with the company for one to two years. Non-regular staff were only 1.5 times higher.


Around 90% of foreign workers are paid below the average of 307,000 yen.


Human resources experts say much of the problem involves the unique Japanese tradition of hiring new graduates en masse for permanent positions and the culture of lifelong employment at one particular company. Foreign workers hired as fresh graduates will be offered the same salary as a local.


But foreigners who join a company midcareer tend to receive lower pay and harsher working conditions if they are hired as temporary staff, said Yu Korekawa, director of the Department of International Research and Cooperation at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.


“Midcareer workers need to have high levels of skills and communication ability,” said Tomoki Yokokawa, chief executive at Human Global Talent, the operator of a job placement website for foreigners. “Since foreign workers have few opportunities to learn while working, they face high hurdles in their efforts to get regular-staff positions.”


Foreign contract and temporary workers are also more likely to lose their jobs during economic downturns. The number of foreigners looking for jobs jumped by 89% on the year in June 2020, under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This figure compared with just a 15% increase across the board in that month, according to the labor ministry.


Japanese language skills are important for foreigners who want permanent positions. But few can juggle improving their language skills while working, and employers tend not to help in this respect. About 60% of roughly 1,900 local governments nationwide do not offer Japanese language courses, the Agency for Cultural Affairs said.


Angelo Akimitsu Ishi, a professor at Musashi University who studies issues related to foreign workers in Japan, said their academic backgrounds and work experience before arriving in the country generally are not highly valued by local employers.


“Japanese companies are not interested in helping midcareer foreign workers develop their skills,” he said.


Many such foreign workers cannot afford to give their children opportunities for higher education and are anxious about retirement because their wages have not grown with age, Ishi said.

A 63-year-old Brazilian man who came to work in Japan in 1989 still is unable to get a permanent job. He applied for one at an automaker, but failed to land the job because he finds it difficult to read and write kanji, Chinese characters used in Japanese writing.


The man’s hourly wage has grown little in 33 years, and his monthly take-home pay has fallen to around 150,000 yen in recent months as he has worked less overtime. He is struggling to meet the monthly payments on a mortgage with an outstanding balance of 14 million yen.


With Japan’s working population shrinking, experts agree the country must try to attract diverse talent from around the world to keep its economy growing. That makes it vital for the nation to do more for its foreign population.

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