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Shrinking Japan: Convenience stores counting on foreign workers to beat labor shortage

Song Haneul, right, prepares to hand a bag to a customer at a Lawson convenience store in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO -- It is a mid-October weekday, and the cashier at a Lawson convenience store in the Ochiai neighborhood of the capital's Shinjuku Ward is asking a customer, "Would you like chopsticks or a spoon?" The question is in Japanese, though the person asking it is Song Haneul, a 19-year-old South Korean student.

The part-time worker heats up the customer's pork cutlet on rice and puts it in a bag along with a spoon before handing it politely across the counter. Soon after, another person comes into the shop carrying five packages and announcing, "I'd like to send these, please." Most Japanese convenience stores double as parcel delivery service counters, and Song moves swiftly to stamp the forms for the packages.

The flow of customers is constant, yet he responds to every request efficiently and warmly -- the result of a training program he completed at a Lawson facility in South Korea before coming to Japan.

Since last year, Lawson has operated a total of four training facilities in South Korea and Vietnam specifically aimed at students scheduled to head to Japan. The facilities have all the features of a Lawson in Japan, from the cash registers and product shelves to models of Lawson-branded snacks like "Kara-age Kun" fried chicken nuggets. Trainees learn the essentials of working at the store, including customer service techniques, how to handle the register and stock the shelves.

The trainer at one of these mock stores in South Korea is a local woman in her 20s with experience working at a Lawson in Japan, and it was from her that Song now at the Ochiai Lawson branch also learned the basics of running a convenience store.

When Song arrived in Japan in April this year to start class at a Japanese language school, he also continued his training at a real Lawson store, mastering how to deal with parcels, the names and prices of the many cigarette brands, and how to confirm the age of customers buying alcohol. Under the terms of his student visa, he can only work 28 hours per week, but he is already an essential member of the staff at the Ochiai Lawson.

"There are so many tasks that need attention and care at a Japanese convenience store compared to ones in South Korea, so it's pretty tough. But I'm learning a lot in this part-time job," said Song. In the future, he hopes to graduate from a Japanese university and find a job with a Japanese firm.

Convenience stores have become a part of the infrastructure of everyday life in Japan, expanding their services to include everything from offering bento boxed meals, side dishes and cafe coffees to providing a place to pay bills. And many of them are open 24 hours a day.

At the same time, however, Japan's aging society combined with the increasing complexity of convenience store jobs has made it hard to retain Japanese student workers. Convenience store chains have responded to this staffing crunch in recent years by hiring on more foreign employees, and they have become a regular sight in the shops especially in major cities. There are now more than 50,000 foreigners in total working for Japan's three major convenience store chains, the majority of them part-timers also going to school.

Lawson President Sadanobu Takemasu has called for "a system to retain foreign workers that have gained retail sector know-how," and the major convenience store firms are pressing the government to include the industry in new foreign worker residency categories now being debated in the Diet.

Meanwhile, the Japan food services association of restaurants has stated that, "rather than having part-timers in our restaurants, we would like to employ high-level foreign workers."

As cooking is recognized as a specialized skill, the restaurant industry is expected to be covered by the new residency statuses, and the industry has high hopes of expanding employment of foreign workers. There are currently three to four job vacancies for restaurant cooks and wait staff per applicant, and personnel shortages could prevent chains from opening new locations or even force some branches out of business.

Zensho Holdings Co. employs about 40,000 people at the nearly 2,000 Sukiya beef bowl restaurants it operates across Japan. About 10 percent of that workforce is made up of foreigners. The firm is trying a number of ways to make the restaurant environment friendlier to foreign employees, including making videos on the preparation of new menu items in English and Vietnamese. However, the competition with other industries for workers is fierce, and there is only so much a single company can do.

That's why the new five-year residency status now under consideration can be called "a ray of hope," as one person related to a major restaurant chain said. Other industry figures have declared that, once the new statuses are in place, they "want to put more effort into recruiting foreign employees and, in the future, train them up to restaurant manager level."

-- Foreign worker numbers already hitting new highs

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Japan's working age population (those aged 15 to 64) stood at just over 75.96 million as of Oct. 1, 2017. According to some estimates, the figure may drop under 60 million by 2040.

Meanwhile, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare statistics show there were some 1.28 million foreigners working in the country as of the end of October last year, including part-timers, technical trainees, and students -- about 600,000 more than five years ago and a record high.

By industry, manufacturing employed the most foreign labor, with about 386,000 workers, followed by the service sector with some 190,000, and the retail industry with around 166,000.

Most industries have boosted their foreign worker ratios in the past five years. These include construction, where one in 90 employees is now a foreigner, as compared to one in 384 five years ago -- a 4.3-fold increase. The rate for the retail sector is up 2.2 times, from one in 145 to one in 65, followed by a 2.1-fold rise in medical and nursing services, and 2.0 in the restaurant and hotel sector.

(Japanese original by Akane Imamura, Business News Department)

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