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Shrinking Japan: Asian interns carrying the weight of agriculture industry

Truong Thi Kim Ngoc (foreground) harvests cherry tomatoes at Shizuo Farm in the city of Shibetsu in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido on Sept. 29, 2018. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Katahira)

SHIBETSU, Hokkaido/ASO, Kumamoto/TOKYO -- Inside one of the many greenhouses lining the vast area of land under the autumn sky in Hokkaido is 22-year-old Truong Thi Kim Ngoc, a Vietnamese intern on the Japanese government's Technical Intern Training Program. Ngoc is picking cherry tomatoes. Pointing, she says in smooth Japanese, "The ones in this aisle are redder, aren't they?"

The Hill of Kawanishi Shizuo Farm group, based in the city of Shibetsu in the northernmost prefecture, employs a total of 20 Vietnamese nationals. Among the approximately 100 Japanese employees at the group, which includes a food processing plant, the average age is 58. Due to a shortage of young labor, Shizuo Farm President Yutaka Imai, 67, decided to open the group's doors to foreign interns in 2015.

"There's absolutely no way we can snag a Japanese worker right out of school," Imai said. "Even if they join us after they've been out in the world for a bit, they only stay for a few years and move on."

Truong, who is "earnest and passionate about her work," according to Imai, obtained her Japanese driver's license in 2016. After accounting for rent and other expenses, she ends up with around 110,000 to 160,000 yen in her pocket every month. Of that sum, Truong sends 100,000 yen to her family back in Vietnam, which goes to building a new home for her family and paying for her younger sister's school fees.

She dreams of staying in Japan forever. "Japan is quiet and the food is safe. I want to marry my boyfriend (a Vietnamese man who is also an intern in Japan), and live in Japan until I die."

Originally, technical trainees like Truong are accepted to learn technical know-how in Japan and go back to their home country and utilize their expertise there. But many of Japan's industries, including agriculture, have increasingly become dependent on them in recent years due to worsening labor shortages.

Farm President Imai, who has the credentials to teach Japanese having passed the Japanese Language Teaching Competency Test, offers Japanese language classes after work hours. He has also established a system in which an additional 2,000 to 30,000 yen is added to an intern's monthly salary if they pass a Japanese competency test, which ranges from N5, which is the easiest, to N1, the most difficult.

"I think of the interns like they're my own children," Imai said. "Hopefully in the future, some of them will take on managerial positions and help run the business." Such a dream would have been unimaginable to Imai in the not-so-distant past.

--- Foreign workers indispensable for Japanese agriculture

Meanwhile, Ikuo Kabashima, the 71-year-old governor of the southern prefecture of Kumamoto, agrees that the presence of foreigners is indispensable for the survival of the Japanese farming industry. "Without foreign laborers, Japanese agriculture is unimaginable," he said.

In October 2017, the Kumamoto Prefectural Government set a goal of establishing "agriculture that links us with the world" and applied to be certified as a national strategic special zone. The concept entailed foreigners working at farms and fruit-sorting sites during the busy season, while gaining expert knowledge by studying Japanese language and agriculture at universities and other institutions. Municipalities designated as special zones can receive deregulatory measures and preferential tax treatments in expectation of their businesses growing faster and larger.

The massive earthquakes that hit Kumamoto in 2016 caused catastrophic damage to the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, causing major outflows of farmers into other industries, such as construction. The aim of the national strategic special zone is to supplement the Japanese labor shortage with foreign workers, while nurturing and educating them to become successors to Japanese farming.

Gov. Kabashima, who was born to a farming family in Kumamoto Prefecture, traveled to the United States at the age of 21 as a farming trainee. He spent day in and day out tending to cows and sheep on an enormous farm. The work was intensive, but the opportunity he had to study animal husbandry at a local university for three months changed his life. He decided to become a full-time student in the U.S., obtained a PhD at Harvard University, and dove into life as a political scientist. His vision for a national strategic special zone stems partly from his own experience of having made a life for himself in the U.S.

"I want to provide opportunities for learning to foreign nationals who have potential," Kabashima said. "It would be great if foreigners and Japanese farmers with no successors could jointly operate farms in the future."

Five foreign nationals work as regular employees at Kinouchi Farm, a strawberry farm at the foot of Mount Aso, a famous volcano in Kumamoto, that caters to tourists. The company began hiring foreigners five years ago with its sights on expanding to the rest of Asia in the future. "We want to incorporate knowledge and information from other countries into our business," Kinouchi Farm President Susumu Murakami stated. "We are the ones learning from our employees."

-- Young foreigners as the pillars of Japanese agriculture

According to government statistics, the population of people engaged in agriculture in Japan stood at 1.75 million in 2018, down 60,000 from the previous year. Of these people, 68 percent were 65 or older. There are around 27,000 foreign nationals who work in Japanese agriculture or forestry; what these industries have in common with many other industries is their reliance on foreign workers. Agriculture is under consideration in the ongoing session of the Diet as one of the industries in which more foreign workers will be accepted. The day that young foreigners comprise the pillars of Japanese agriculture may not be so far away.

This very real possibility is corroborated by statistics that in 2017, the number of foreign nationals working in agriculture in Japan had increased by 1.7 times the figure in 2013 to approximately 27,000 people. The fisheries industry has shown a similar trend: while only 1,140 foreigners were involved in fisheries at the end of October of 2012, that figure had reached 2,756 by the end of October of this year.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the majority of foreign nationals farming in Japan are Asians on the Japanese-government-run Technical Intern Training Program. By country, Chinese nationals who comprised over 70 percent of the 8,821 interns who arrived in Japan in fiscal 2012 have been declining in number in recent years. The number of Vietnamese nationals, who made up less than 10 percent of all trainees in fiscal 2012, has surged. By fiscal 2016, they constituted over 30 percent, or 3,834 trainees.

If the new residency statuses under Diet deliberation are established, they could become a mechanism that, along with the Technical Intern Training Program and the national strategic special zone system, secures workers in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. This would inflate the industries' expectations.

However, only 14 industries are under consideration for accepting expert workers as "category 2"-status residents, which allows accompaniment by spouses and children, and renewal of residency status. During Diet questioning, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Takamori Yoshikawa said, "I have received no requests from (agricultural) industry groups (to include agriculture among those being considered for 'category 2' status)."

For the time being, it appears that if the new statuses are established, those engaged in agriculture may only be eligible for "category 1" status. This would allow the holder to stay for a maximum of five years unaccompanied by family members.

(Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, Tomohiro Katahira and Takeshi Wada, City News Department)

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