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Companies in Japan modifying work environments to meet rise in foreign employees

Workers gather around a table of fruit. (Mainichi)
A Muslim employee, foreground, receives Halal food at a company cafeteria. (Mainichi)

Faced with a labor shortage stemming from its aging population, Japan is increasingly looking toward foreign nationals to boost its workforce. And as more Japanese nationals work alongside non-Japanese with different cultures and customs, some companies are modifying their working environments.

Wovn Technologies in Tokyo's Minato Ward, which converts websites into other languages, is one such firm. More than half of the company's 63 workers, including part-timers and temp workers, are foreign nationals. During a recent visit, English conversation could be heard in a multipurpose room where a plate of bananas and American cherries had been placed.

To create an environment that was easy to work in regardless of a worker's country of origin or culture, the company abolished the system of having workers take every public holiday off work. Instead, the same number of days is added to employees' paid holidays.

-- Lunar New Year holidays

"Up until now I was in Japan during the Lunar New Year, but next year I'd like to think about spending it with my family," said Wu Hsiang-chih, a 34-year-old worker from Taiwan. Wu studied in Japan when he was in university, and entered the company four years ago. He is in charge of supporting customers with the introduction of computer systems. Wu is considering acquiring Japanese citizenship, and is using the company's support system to move ahead with the paperwork.

Some foreign workers say it is no big deal to work on unfamiliar Japanese holidays like "Sports Day" and "Marine Day," but want to take Christmas or the Lunar New Year off work. Depending on where the worker is from, the period they want to take off work differs and a work system that follows the Japanese calendar is not necessarily easy for everyone.

"If people's time schedules are flexible, then most problems can probably be solved," says 33-year-old company president Takaharu Hayashi. There is also the merit of Japanese staff being able to create their own schedules. No workers were opposed to the flexible holiday system.

Masahiro Hisada, 28, a member of the system development team, commented, "Travel expenses go up on public holidays. I think it's good to be able to take time off flexibly." He entered the company in May last year after working at firms where the majority of staff members were Japanese. His team includes people from various countries including the United States, Norway and Vietnam. "There's appeal working in a global environment with engineers from around the world while remaining in Japan," he says.

-- Assumptions lead to misunderstandings

There have, however, been some tough experiences for workers in this environment. When one employee, expecting a job to be done, told another, "Perhaps it would be good to do this," the vague statement resulted in an important task being treated as low-priority work, and eventually the job was forgotten.

"Tacit understandings that are characteristic of Japanese people are meaningless here," Hisada says. "Not saying something straight leads to mistakes." Now, he clearly tells workers when tasks are due and what the order of priority is. He has come to consider clear expressions as being more efficient in the line of work.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were approximately 1,279,000 non-Japanese workers in Japan as of the end of October last year -- 18 percent up from the same time the previous year and a record high. The government has indicated that it intends to accept more foreign workers and intends to create a new status of residence under which foreigners can work.

-- Learning unique rules

Among Japan's foreign workers are Muslims who abide by unique rules such as those covering food and religious services. With companies responding to meet their food and facility needs, company employees who are not Muslims have started to learn from their fellow workers.

Internet retail giant Rakuten Inc., headquartered in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, has roughly 6,000 employees, about 20 percent of whom are non-Japanese, and over 100 are Muslim. At the end of May, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is marked by fasting from dawn to sunset, an "Iftar party" was held at the suggestion of the company's Muslim employees. Iftar is the evening meal that family members and relatives enjoy together when they break their fast after sunset.

MdKhairul Kabir, a 34-year-old engineer who planned the party, commented, "I often got asked by fellow workers, 'What do you do when you fast?' and other things like that. I came up with the idea (of holding the party) to have them understand the rules and concepts." It was the first evening meal where non-Muslim employees were also invited, and roughly 100 people took part, around 60 percent of whom were non-Muslims.

At the party it was explained that eating and drinking was forbidden from dawn till sunset. On the menu at the party was a rice dish called biryani, and dates, which are often first eaten after sunset. Company spokeswoman Yuki Tokaji, 33, was among those who took part. "I realized that they value family ties very much. It was also enlightening to hear the actual situation regarding what they could do and what was forbidden," she said.

During Ramadan, another worker, 40-year-old Shakil Muhintule, received permission from his boss to start working earlier so he could make it home in time for Iftar. "The flexible response helps," he says. "I want to continue the evening dinner gatherings next year onwards, and enrich the content."

MdKhairul Kabir, right, and other workers introduce a washing area that is used to cleanse the body before worship. (Mainichi)

-- Company meals for Muslims

Before Rakuten moved to its current location in Futako Tamagawa in Setagawa Ward in 2015, an empty office was used for worship for Muslim employees. But other employees would open the door not realizing that a religious service was in progress, and so the Muslim employees who remained unsettled used a different room, but it was hard to secure a place. The new headquarters has prayer and meditation facilities with a dedicated washing room that is used before worship. In the free cafeteria, for people who register in advance there is Halal food permitted under Islamic law, which is prepared without pork or alcohol. Benefits such as company cafeterias are promoted through the establishment of committees of workers. Tokaji, who is on the cafeteria committee, comments, "We have people from various countries, so we respond flexibly. We want to continue to go about things fairly without preconceptions."

(Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, Lifestyle News Department)

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