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Hotel industry worries foreign students will be limited under new foreign labor policy

Foreign students attend a lecture from the former landlady of a hot spring inn at Nippon Omotenashi College, in Maebashi, on Oct. 15, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

MAEBASHI -- While the short-staffed lodging industry welcomed its official designation by the government on Dec. 25 to accept more foreign workers under new residency statuses next April, local businesses here worry that the new policies may put foreign students already training at technical schools at a disadvantage.

Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, is home to some of Japan's most famous hot springs, such as Kusatsu and Ikaho. And local vocational schools have been attracting international students who want to learn the hospitality of traditional Japanese "ryokan" inns.

"When guests arrive at their room, we serve them green tea. There is meaning behind this -- it is a chance for guests coming from faraway places to take a breather and lower their heart rate," lectured the former landlady of a hot spring inn. At Nippon Omotenashi College in Gunma's prefectural capital of Maebashi, those who study skills like services and hospitality provided at traditional Japanese inns are mainly students from abroad.

More than 90 percent of the vocational school's graduates have found work, as ryokan inns and other businesses continue to recruit them. There were only 25 students when the school opened in 2013, but that number has now increased 20 fold in just five years. As of October 2018, there were 514 students -- many of whom hail from other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Nepal.

"Japanese hospitality has very high standards and is completely different from my home country," said 21-year-old Romario Steven from Indonesia. "I would be happy if I was able to work at a hotel or ryokan during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games."

Up to 22,000 new foreign workers are expected to be accepted into the lodging industry over the next five years under the new "specific skills" residency status. "I appreciate that they are opening the doors (for more workers)," said Hiroshi Okamoto, the assistant manager of a ryokan near Takaragawa Onsen, which is popular among foreign tourists, located in the town of Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. During busy seasons, tourists from countries such as China make up close to 70 percent of his clientele, and Okamoto hires a man from Taiwan. Okamoto says the employee receives favorable reviews from his foreign guests.

However, local businesses are concerned that accepting industry-ready workers with "specific skills" may limit career options for foreign students who are learning those skills in Japan already. After graduation, the technical school graduates will be employed as "highly professional human resources." Such workers are restricted to job types requiring professional skills and knowledge, such as interpreters and front-desk receptionists. On the other hand, workers with the specific skills visa can work in a wide range of job types, from front desk receptionists to customer and restaurant services, offering them more choice.

"Even though we would like to ask them to be involved in cleaning, we can't ask them to do that sort of work," admitted the owner of a different ryokan inn also near a hot spring spot. The owner has already hired one foreign national as an interpreter, and cannot afford to employ another person. "The labor shortage will be better solved by allowing technical school graduates with expertise and Japanese knowledge to take on jobs requiring both professional and specific skills," he said.

In 2008, the Japanese government put forward a plant to bring 300,000 exchange students to the country. As of late June, the number of international students in Japan exceeded 320,000.

"Rather than accepting new foreign workers under the specific skills visa," suggested Akie Sato, the deputy head of Nippon Omotenashi College, "Shouldn't the government first improve the system to expand the kind of work that graduates of vocational schools can do, even by a little?"

(Japanese original by Naoki Sugi, Maebashi Bureau)

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