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Shrinking Japan: Foreigners eager to promote 'cool Japan' face obstacles to work visas

An instructor, far right, shows how to cook a Japanese dish as Vaelinoro van Ann Varvara, far left, and other students look on, at Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka's Abeno Ward in western Japan, on Oct. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

OSAKA/TOKYO -- "Try to savor the taste of the broth for 'nikujaga' (meat and potato stew) and remember it on your tongue," an instructor told his students during a lesson on Japanese cuisine at the Tsuji Culinary Institute in the Abeno Ward of the western Japan city of Osaka.

One of the students, Vaelinoro van Ann Varvara, 21, from Finland, tasted the broth served on a small plate with a serious look. She is one of the 178 foreign students studying at the prestigious culinary school. In the school's cook license course, foreign nationals account for over 10 percent of the 1,300-member student body.

Born to a mother who once worked for the Finnish embassy in Japan, Vaelinoro naturally developed an interest in Japanese cuisine. She entered a two-year course at Tsuji Culinary Institute in April of this year.

In Finland, people's interest in Japanese cuisine has been growing amid the health-conscious trend, but most of those cooking Japanese dishes are Chinese. "Japanese dishes in my home country taste totally different from the authentic ones," Vaelinoro says. "I thought I wouldn't be able to learn Japanese cuisine back home, so I wanted to learn while working in Japan."

The experience of merely learning how to cook Japanese dishes at a vocational school, however, does not lead to foreigners becoming independent and working as a cook in Japan instantly. Unless a foreign national gets involved in a special project promoting Japanese cuisine offered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries or the Kyoto Municipal Government, then they cannot obtain a "designated activities" visa with a maximum five-year residency status.

It is said that only up to roughly 30 people a year are granted such visas in relation to the agricultural ministry project. Even then, interest in Japanese cuisine overseas still remains high.

Pan Sheng-ya, 22, from Taiwan, who has been studying at Tsuji culinary for one and a half years, said, "There is a lot to learn, such as food culture and dishes, and tableware to go with each season. I'd like to learn Japanese cuisine so that I can teach others and make (authentic) Japanese dishes widespread back in Taiwan. I think it'll take six years at least for me to reach that level."

--- High demand for foreign CG specialists

Meanwhile, at Polygon Pictures, a digital animation studio in Tokyo known for works including the recent "Godzilla" feature, about 20 percent of its 300 employees are foreigners. A team of interpreters move around the offices to facilitate communications between company staff.

The firm, based in the capital's Minato Ward, has hired staff for each work focusing on their skills, but not many foreigners can meet the requirements, including at least 10 years of work experience in a related field.

Wataru Ninomiya, a group leader at the firm's human resources and general affairs department, says, "The animation industry is short-staffed, but we receive many applications from abroad, eager to create animated works. I hope the (immigration) system will be deregulated so talented people can come work."

While foreigner nationals are having a hard time finding jobs in areas where Japan yearns to promote its own culture abroad, the Japanese government has at long last moved to smooth the system. It now plans to allow foreign nationals who have graduated from vocational schools to take up jobs related to Japanese culture, such as animation and Japanese cuisine, and add those jobs to designated activities visas from next spring.

However, some foreign students enrolled at Japanese language schools are there to simply work away from home for a short period to make money. There are also predatory schools that solicit illicit admissions just to collect tuition fees from students.

"I hear there are Japanese language schools that sweet-talk foreign students into enrolling by falsely telling them that they can quickly find jobs in Japan," said a frustrated official in charge of foreign students at a culinary school in Tokyo.

Given the important role that foreigners play in the government's Cool Japan strategy of pitching Japan's culture to foreign markets, it is an urgent task to improve the environment to accept them to work in the country.

--- Only 30% of foreign college, graduate students land jobs in Japan

According to the Japan Student Services Organization, there were approximately 188,000 foreign students learning at universities, two-year colleges, vocational schools and other higher education institutions as of May 2017. There are also an additional 79,000 foreign students attending Japanese language schools. Overall, the number of foreign students in Japan has soared by more than 100,000 over the past five years.

However, just around 30 percent of foreign students who finished universities or graduate schools manage to land jobs in Japan. In fiscal 2016, roughly 8,600 out of some 24,000 foreign students got a job in the country. The small ratio is said to be due to a lack of job openings and the foreign student's Japanese language ability, among other factors.

The Ministry of Justice is considering granting residency statuses to foreign nationals who aspire to obtain jobs related to the Cool Japan initiative and to those who graduated from Japanese universities. Meanwhile, the ministry has toughened conditions for green-lighting the establishment of Japanese language schools, which have been rising in number in recent years. The measure includes prohibiting curriculums that enable foreign students whose true intentions are to simply make money in Japan to take a long break for part-time jobs.

(Japanese original by Tomohiro Katahira, City News Department)

This is Part 5 of a series.

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