THREE YEARS AFTER: Businesses in disaster-hit areas relying on foreign trainees

March 07, 2014


ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture--In areas recovering from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, businesses struggling to secure workers are increasingly turning to foreign trainees.

“The technical intern training program is the only way to attract workers,” Yasuhiro Naganuma, 39, president of Marudai Naganuma Shoten, said. “We intend to accept more trainees.”

At the company’s seafood processing factory in Ishinomaki, three Chinese female trainees in their 30s sort out and package oysters.

In 2012, orders for “mekabu,” or the sprouts of “wakame” seaweed, shot up after a TV program touted their health benefits.

The company raised its hourly wage to 1,300 yen ($12.65), more than a 50-percent increase from its pre-disaster level, and distributed 2,000 help-wanted fliers. But not a single inquiry came.

The company, which used foreign trainees before the disaster, decided to begin accepting them again last October.

Today, 150,000 “technical intern trainees” from China, Vietnam and elsewhere work in Japan. They receive salaries above the minimum wage and can stay for up to three years.

Naganuma said foreign trainees cost almost the same as Japanese employees after commissions are paid to a cooperative that acts as a middleman in introducing them to his company. Still, it is a more reliable way to find needed help than waiting for Japanese workers to apply, he said.

In the prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima, devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the number of job openings has doubled compared to what was available before the disaster, but the number of job seekers has fallen 25 percent.

The ratio of job offers to job applicants has climbed to 1.19, meaning there are 119 openings available for every 100 job seekers.

Like Marudai Naganuma Shoten, many employers now depend on foreign trainees.

Immediately after the natural disaster and the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, 2,600 foreign trainees, or about 60 percent of the 4,100 in the three prefectures, left Japan.

But by last autumn, that number rebounded to 80 percent of pre-disaster levels.

One food processing company in southern Fukushima Prefecture accepted foreign trainees for the first time in late 2013.

“We are short-handed and worn out,” said a man in his 50s, who runs the company. “We accepted (trainees) because we were desperate for help.”

The man said many homemakers who worked part-time at the company left the prefecture with their children while young male employees have opted for better-paying decontamination jobs.

A Chinese trainee at the company’s factory said she takes home more than 100,000 yen a month after paying her rent and other living expenses. That is more than three times as much as she can earn in her home country.

“I am happy because I can get much money,” said the woman in her late 30s, who leaves her apartment near the factory at 3 a.m. and works until 4 p.m., including rest breaks. “I want to work more.”

She said she sends a large portion of her salary to her family--husband, son, parents and others--in northeastern China.

Shigeyuki Kuwata, 44, who runs an underwear sewing company in Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, is one of those who have called on the government to accept more foreign trainees.

Kuwata’s company began accepting trainees in 2006 after building a dormitory. Until about a decade ago, the company took on graduates from local high schools, but they soon left.

Nine trainees, the maximum number the company is allowed, now work at the company after three workers from Vietnam joined the six already there from China in January.

“(Trainees) are a valuable asset, and we have no choice but to rely on them,” Kuwata said. “We want the system to be reviewed so that they can work for more than three years.”

Shigeru Chiba, representative director of the Iwate Apparel Cooperative, which acts as an agent for the trainees, said, “Companies tried to switch to Japanese workers after many foreigners left in the wake of the disaster, but they invariably failed.”

(This article was written by Tomoyuki Izawa, Miho Tanaka and Shohei Makiuchi.)

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A Chinese trainee, center, sorts out "mekabu," the sprouts of "wakame" seaweed, at a factory in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February. (Yosuke Fukudome)

A Chinese trainee, center, sorts out "mekabu," the sprouts of "wakame" seaweed, at a factory in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February. (Yosuke Fukudome)

  • A Chinese trainee, center, sorts out "mekabu," the sprouts of "wakame" seaweed, at a factory in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February. (Yosuke Fukudome)
  • Three Chinese trainees, center, have lunch with their Japanese colleagues at a factory in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in February. (Yosuke Fukudome)

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