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Vietnamese trainee involved in Fukushima cleanup reflects on Tokyo Games he helped build

A Vietnamese man looks up at the Japan National Stadium through fences in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in May 2021. (Mainichi/Shunsuke Sekiya)

TOKYO -- "I want to go inside and take a look, even if I was involved only a little," said a 29-year-old Vietnamese construction worker as he looked up over the fences to Japan National Stadium, the main venue for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

    As a technical intern trainee, Nguyen (name changed for privacy) was involved in building the Shinjuku Ward stadium's foundations. Later, he was part of decommissioning work at the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The Mainichi Shimbun asked him to reflect on what he thinks of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

    This Mainichi Shimbun reporter first met Nguyen about three years ago at a three-bedroom home in Fukushima Prefecture's Hamadori area. It was rented by a Tokyo construction company, and I would often drop by when visiting the prefecture. At the time, he lived there with five other Vietnamese and Indonesian trainees in their 20s and 30s.

    Of the six, Nguyen was most fluent in Japanese. After studying the language, he came to Japan in summer 2015 and joined the construction firm. Most of the six came here with debts relating to travel and other expenses totaling over 1 million yen (about $9,100) each.

    They would leave home in a van at 6 a.m. with homemade lunch boxes, and spent their days working at the power plant about 20 kilometers away. On holidays they were mostly in the house using Wi-Fi for video calls to family back home using free communications app Line. But none of them told their families they were working at the nuclear plant.

    One after another in broken Japanese, they said, "It's a secret. It's better not to tell them," "They will worry. They'll tell me to come home," and "It's not good if you work too long." When asked why they still worked there, they murmured: "Money."

    Their work at the power plant site involved building a new incineration facility for burning radioactive debris and felled trees. They had no radiation protection training, and were unaware of what radiation doses they were exposed to.

    Before working at the plant, three of them including Nguyen had been involved in laying down the National Stadium's foundations.

    "It was a big site, so it was hard to carry the reinforced bars. They were so heavy," Nguyen said. The site of the 70,000-square-meter oval stadium was lined with huge cranes, but some areas had no room for them, meaning construction materials had to be carried by hand. For about six months they only had Sundays off and worked holidays, too.

    After his three-year training in Japan ended, Nguyen returned to Vietnam and worked for about two and a half years, including a job at a smartphone manufacturer. "I worked 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., or 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., making 50,000 or 60,000 yen (about $450 or $550) a month," he said. He did not make use of his construction skills acquired in Japan. "Construction in Vietnam is different from Japan. There is not much concrete. They use bricks there," he explained.

    Nguyen wanted to return to Japan because he could earn more than 200,000 yen (about $1,800) a month. But the pandemic prevented him from traveling. His parents, both over 60 and living with him in Vietnam, asked him not to go back, saying they wanted him close by. But he was finally able to come to Japan, and has been working as a "Specified Skilled Worker (i)" since January.

    The construction company's president helped Nguyen return to Japan, and covered travel expenses and administrative costs. Now, he's working at construction sites in Tokyo for an elementary school and an apartment building.

    "In Japan, young people don't work in construction. The work sites are hot and cold, so it's very difficult. It's physically tiring," Nguyen said sadly.

    In 2019 Japan had about 4.99 million construction workers, down 30% on their 1997 peak. It is an aging workforce -- only about 10% today are in their 20s or younger. Foreigners have plugged the gap, with the 93,000 non-Japanese construction workers in 2019 representing about eight times their number a decade ago.

    On days off, Nguyen spends most of his time in his dormitory recovering from the physical labor. To avoid coronavirus infection, he refrains from going out. Even during the previous three years he was in Japan, he didn't visit any tourist spots. "It costs money. I've never been to Asakusa or Tokyo Skytree," he said.

    In March when the Olympic torch relay passed near the Fukushima Prefecture house Nguyen and his colleagues used to live in, I texted him over Line asking if he saw it on TV. Nguyen replied, "I didn't know about it because I don't have a TV." His dormitory doesn't have one.

    A Vietnamese man gazes at the Japan National Stadium in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in May 2021. (Mainichi/Shunsuke Sekiya)

    Since returning to Japan this year, Nguyen had only seen the completed stadium from the train. On one of his days off in May, I went with him to see it. After getting off at JR Sendagaya Station, Nguyen said, "It's all new. It's so nostalgic," as he looked around the station building renovated for the Olympics.

    A few minutes' walk brought us to the stadium, a five-story building with two underground levels. It was surrounded by construction fences, but Nguyen said, "I think it's around here," and pointed to the construction area he was in charge of. "It's beautiful. It's pretty big," he said of the stadium.

    How does he feel about the Olympics being held at a stadium he helped build?

    "Vietnamese athletes will be there. I want to see (the games)," he said. But he said he had not told his family about his involvement in the stadium's construction. "My parents just tell me not to work too much," he said.

    About three years ago, Nguyen showed me two worn-out Japanese textbooks he used and said, "I want to be an interpreter." But now he said with a sigh. "It's difficult. I also worked at a Japanese company's factory in Vietnam, but only for a short time because my contract expired."

    Foreigners with the Specified Skilled Worker (i) status cannot bring their families to Japan even if they get married. To move up to the Specified Skilled Worker (ii) level, which allows them to live in Japan with their family, they're required to have a high skill level and must pass an exam.

    "Japan is easy to live in. But I'm not used to it. I want to get married and live with my family. At my age in Vietnam, I am late marrying," the 29-year-old man said.

    "I'll probably go back to Vietnam after two more years working," he said as we parted before he boarded the train for home.

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Sekiya, Tokyo City News Department)

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