KATHMANDU -- Japan's new visa measures to open its doors to more foreign workers have not gone unnoticed in Nepal. On a visit to the small Himalayan nation in March 2019, this reporter met with young people pursuing the "Japanese Dream."
On the outskirts of the capital, Kathmandu, a group of young adults stood in rows outside wearing matching jerseys. They were reciting together in Japanese, "Today, brightly, happily and joyfully, we will work proactively!"
They're all students of Nepal Human Development (Pvt) Ltd., a Japanese school run by Anoj Shakya, 46, who lived in Japan for over two decades. He opened the center for adults in October 2018 to prime his students for the April 2019 rollout of Japan's new specified skills visas for foreign workers. About 30 pupils study Japanese language, culture, traffic laws and other rules at the boarding school.
Nepal is in the throes of a Japanese boom. In Bagbazar, central Kathmandu, signs for Japanese schools are everywhere. One school says the new visas have spurred many students to start studying for a better future abroad.
But acceptance of workers under the new visa program has barely started in Japan. The skills test required to obtain the visas is only being carried out in the nursing care, hotel and food service industries, which are just three of 14 fields set to be covered by the specified skills visas. With no plans for the test to be held in Nepal, the prospects of the students heading to Japan in the near future are low. A Japanese government official has appealed for some perspective, saying, "People have gotten worked up about the system before they know the details."
Bawani Kunwar, 29, is one of the students boarding at the school. The daughter of farmers, she wants to work in Japan's agriculture sector. Kunwar took me to her home village of Dapcha in KavrePbaalanchok District, a three-hour drive from Kathmandu, where most of the town's 3,000 residents lead close to self-sustaining lives in the fields.
Her parents support her dream. "Of course, I want my daughter to make her living in Japan," her father Ram, 67, told me outside their stone house. All five of his children have left the village to find work elsewhere. Ram farms corn and rice, which has heretofore allowed him to support his family. In recent years the village's young generation has left in droves, however, leaving 90% of his fields unworked. "Even if you tell them we'll pay twice as much as before, they still don't come back," he said.
Kunwar studied at the village junior high school before going to Kathmandu for high school. After she graduated, she worked at a clothing store in the city, but two years ago she returned to the village to take care of her parents. A friend studying in Japan told her what a safe country it was, so when she heard about the Abe administration's plan to increase foreign worker intake she decided to learn Japanese. "I want to support my parents by working in Japan. Once I come back to Nepal, we could start Japanese-style farming using machines," she said.
Nepal has a population of around 30 million people and agriculture and tourism are its only major industries. Every day about 1,000 people leave the country for work abroad. Many work in neighboring India, but during the 1996 to 2006 Nepalese Civil War, the number of young people leaving for the Middle East and Malaysia surged.
Migration to Japan first became appealing in Nepal around the 2010s. Popularity spread by word of mouth. Stories of its clean, safe society and salaries 10 times those at home fostered a huge increase in migrant numbers, with many coming to escape poverty and in the process, helping alleviate Japan's labor shortage.
In mid-March in Ueno, Tokyo, I met Nirmal Lama, 29, the student who told Kunwar about his life in Japan. "When I first came here I thought it was a big mistake," he says. In October 2013 Lama paid over a million yen in school and other fees to come to Japan. He studied at a Japanese school and a vocational college while also working nights as hotel cleaning staff. Struggling to cover school fees and living costs, he ran up debt borrowing from friends. His situation finally improved in spring 2017 when he found work at a Tokyo hotel.
"It's not that you can just come to Japan and your life will be fine. Even with the new status of residence, I wouldn't easily encourage people to move here," he said. But Lama also says that he intends to spend the rest of his life here. I asked him why. "In Japan, if you work hard there are opportunities. You just don't have that in Nepal," he said.
(Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, City News Department)