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Japan's Narita airport hiring more foreigners as inbound visitors grow

This photo shows Roneta Ratumaitavuki, right, a Fijian employee at Narita International Airport Corp., attending to customers at TraveLounge at Narita airport. (Kyodo)

CHIBA, Japan (Kyodo) -- Japan's largest international gateway is hiring more foreigners to better serve non-Japanese visitors as they arrive in increasing numbers under the government's policy to promote inbound tourism.

The move by Narita International Airport Corp. comes as the country seeks to attract 40 million visitors by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympic, and 60 million by 2030, so as to achieve economic growth amid a shrinking domestic market characterized by an aging population and a persistently low birthrate.

The transport ministry is now considering creating a new visa status to expand foreign employment at airports nationwide to counter expected shortages of Japanese workers there.

In late July, Roneta Ratumaitavuki, a 24-year-old Fijian, began working at the airport near Tokyo as one of the first three foreigners directly employed by the airport operator.

Speaking in fluent English, Ratumaitavuki was attending to a group of men from Singapore at a reception counter of a pay lounge, giving them instructions on where to smoke and enquiring whether they would be paying their bills together or separately.

Language skills and a high educational background were what Narita International Airport was looking for when it decided to recruit staff from Fiji.

After learning that the English-speaking country has many educated but unemployed people, the airport operator held interviews locally and offered positions to three out of the 181 who applied, according to its officials.

Being Japan's busiest airport by international passenger traffic, the airport plays an important role in Japan's inbound tourism, promoted under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's growth strategy.

The number of foreign visitors to Japan eclipsed 20 million in 2016 and hit record 28.7 million in 2017. Of those who entered Japan by air last year, the largest group of 29 percent came through Narita airport, according to the transport ministry.

In the face of the growing number of airport users, a security firm conducting safety inspections at Narita has also started hiring foreign staff over the past few years and now employs some 10 people from countries including China, South Korea and Sri Lanka.

"With the (limited) linguistic ability of the Japanese people, it often takes longer to carry out inspections on materials, including liquids," said an official in charge of the inspections.

The rise in the number of foreign workers at Narita not only reflects a need for people with communication skills in English and other languages but also the fact that Japanese are turned off by the hard work and long hours that airport jobs often entail.

"While airports appear glamourous, the work carried out there is often tough, dirty and dangerous," said a senior official of Narita International Airport, adding that people doing such jobs often need to work late at night or in the early morning outside of flight hours.

"Japanese people are choosing jobs with better working conditions," said Mamoru Uematsu, an executive of Biseisha Co., which cleans Narita airport around the clock.

Saying 35 of the company's 300 workers are now foreigners, Uematsu said Japanese airports cannot operate without a foreign workforce.

The number of international passengers using Japanese airports in fiscal 2016 grew 1.4 times from fiscal 2012, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

To accommodate continued growth, Narita airport seeks to expand its capacity by adding a third runway, a plan that will raise the number of workers needed at the airport to 70,000 from the current 40,000.

The government also plans reduce the workload at airports by introducing facial recognition technology to automate a part of the immigration checks at major airports.

Still, a transport ministry official said concerns remain about a shortage of personnel in the face of robust demand, particularly when Japan is suffering from a falling birthrate.

The ministry is now considering creating a visa status for specific jobs such as ground handling, in which a person guides a plane on ground, the official said.

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