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Shrinking Japan: Foreign workers counted on for Olympic, reconstruction projects

Dinh Van Duyet from Vietnam, right, and Carandang Mark Ben Gravillo from the Philippines, work to build the Sea Forest Waterway for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO/IWAKI, Fukushima -- Dinh Van Duyet was busy waterproofing sections of the exterior wall with window frames, injecting water resistant paste into spaces around the frames.

Dinh, 24, was working from 8 a.m. through around 5 p.m. at the planned Sea Forest Waterway, where rowing and canoe competitions will be held during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The Vietnamese worker and others were building the grandstand facility to accommodate spectators at the waterfront venue in southeastern Tokyo, about 20 minutes by car from Telecom Center Station on the Yurikamome Line.

"I'm getting better doing the job," said Dinh, who came to Japan three years ago to learn the language and technical know-how. "But applying the finishing touches is still challenging," he said as he worked under the supervision of a Japanese superior.

Dinh is a technical trainee working for a subcontractor of a joint venture involving Toyo Construction Co. that is responsible for the Sea Forest project. He transfers about half his monthly salary, which is roughly five times his pay in his Southeast Asian country, to his family back home. "My dream is starting a waterproofing business in Vietnam."

Working at the same venue was Carandang Mark Ben Gravillo, 29, a worker from the Philippines with permanent residency. Born in a country where many go overseas seeking higher wages, he chose to come to Japan with his mother in 2005 because "the most important thing is a safe environment where you can live without concerns."

"In 2020, I want to watch the Olympics on TV and tell my wife and three kids, 'Your father made this venue,'" he said, smiling.

Dinh and Carandang are among some 150 people per day working at the Sea Forest Waterway. About 10 percent of the workforce is foreigners. As many as 40 Olympic-related sites, including the new National Stadium that will serve as the main venue, are being prepared. "Many of those facilities could not be completed without foreigners," said one individual associated with the construction projects.

--- Foreign workers vital for Fukushima reconstruction

From Tokyo further up north in Fukushima Prefecture, where the Olympic torch relay will begin, foreign workers are a vital force for reconstruction efforts after massive damage caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The prefecture is expected to be a symbol of the "Reconstruction Olympics," as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared, "to show the world we have come back from the quake." But labor shortages are severe in Fukushima, too, and foreigners are helping out.

"They learn fast, and they are more focused than Japanese workers," said Kazushi Sato, 43, who oversaw Vietnamese trainees using welding machines at Hokuto Katawaku Seisakusho, a maker of steel molds to make concrete products, in the city of Koriyama in Fukushima. "We can depend on them."

Since the 2011 quake that triggered a massive tsunami, Hokuto has seen surging demands for molds to make concrete seawall blocks. Its factory has been operating at full capacity but the company had trouble finding workers. Hokuto thus hired three Vietnamese trainees in September 2017.

Nguyen Van Hung, 26, one of the trainees, left his plumbing job and came to Japan because he "wanted to make more money." He borrowed about 600,000 yen to pay a mediator to find him employment in Japan, but has already paid off the debt while sending some 100,000 yen every month to his family in Vietnam from his salary that is around five times what he made back home.

Before his arrival in Japan, Nguyen said he was "a bit scared" by the news of the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following the earthquake. But now, said Nguyen, "I enjoy life here. I want to stay longer."

According to the Fukushima Labor Bureau, the number of foreign workers in the prefecture stood at 6,914 as of October 2017, jumping 1.8 times from the pre-quake figure seven years earlier. Accordingly, the number of employers with foreign workers almost doubled to 1,401.

"Finding Japanese workers became particularly difficult in recent years, because of disaster reconstruction and the Olympics," said Hokuto President Masanari Endo. "Areas hit by the disaster are helped by foreigners."

A similar situation exists in the southern Japan prefecture of Kumamoto that was devastated by major earthquakes in 2016. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's vital statistics, 13,411 foreign residents were registered there as of Jan. 1, 2018, marking a 16.64 percent jump from the previous year -- the highest number across the nation.

In September, 3.46 jobs were available for each job seeker in the construction industry, attracting more foreigners than before. According to the prefectural cooperative of companies carrying out steel reinforcement work, 19 of its 26 members hire more than 100 foreigners. "Everyone needs them," said Takashi Nakamura, 65, who heads the industry organization.

--- General contractors spending more to train foreigners

The construction industry is suffering from chronic labor shortages. To fight the situation, contractors have introduced a number of measures including using machines in place of people, but much of the construction work requires human hands.

Kajima Corp. thus is accelerating efforts to train foreign welders. The general contractor began sending experienced Japanese welders to Vietnam in 2016, offering the chance for technical trainees to study and practice welding, and learn the Japanese language before they come to Japan. The preliminary course is designed to prepare the trainees so that they will be ready to start learning practical skills on the job and start working full time as soon as they arrive in Japan.

The arrangement costs several million yen per trainee, but the company thinks it is unavoidable. "We must secure people or we cannot secure contracts," explained a Kajima official in charge.

The construction industry used to face criticism for "forcing trainees to work long hours at low pay." Now many companies, including Kajima, are offering salaries, days off and accommodation under conditions similar to those for Japanese workers. "The labor shortage has reached an extreme," said a construction industry insider, and we are now dependent on foreigners.

--- Construction industry hit hard by labor shortages

The government of Japan is opening up the door to more foreign workers totaling hundreds of thousands, but the country already depends on 1.28 million of them in a variety of industries. Japan faces an imminent need to think about how to cope with those workers.

The construction industry, which has been particularly hit hard by the dearth of workers, has been receiving a five-year special treatment by the government since fiscal 2015 to secure reliable hands. Technical trainees working in the industry can receive a maximum two-year special residency status after they have completed three years of "training." And those workers can return to Japan for three years after a one-year stay in their home countries.

As many as 36,000 foreign trainees were at construction projects nationwide as of 2017. This was more than five times the figure of six years earlier. And the industry is bent on employing more, as a quarter of 3.3. million Japanese construction workers are aged 60 or older and most of them are expected to retire in 10 years. Raising a young domestic force remains a challenge.

The industry, however, is prone to be affected by economic downturns. Demand may be reduced after the 2020 Tokyo Games. Concerns are emerging that foreign newcomers hired to make up for the current labor shortage would lose their jobs and become illegal residents.

(Japanese original by Arimasa Mori, Business News Department, and Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

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