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Reliant on foreign trainees, farm in Tokyo area 'kitchen' hobbled by border barriers

Kazuo Tobe, pictured here in a field in the Gunma Prefecture city of Showa on Oct. 7, 2021, faces a shortage of workers. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The coronavirus pandemic is weighing heavily on a farmer in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, as the foreign technical trainees he had relied on for labor have not been able to come to Japan.

    Spinach farmer Kazuo Tobe, 57, has a property in the village of Showa at the foot of Mount Akagi, an area known as the "kitchen of the Metropolitan area" from its delivery of fresh vegetables to the capital sphere. But this summer he had to abandon production in over 10 of the 50 greenhouses he set up, as he does not have enough workers to harvest them -- a result of foreign trainees no longer being able to come to Japan and work at his farm. For each trainee Tobe loses, his sales decline by about 5 million yen (roughly $44,000) per year, he says.

    "I wonder for how many years this is going to continue," he sighs.

    The village of Showa has a population of about 7,100 people. In 1995, it started receiving foreign trainees through a local Japan Agricultural Cooperatives association, and in recent years, 250 to 300 trainees had come to the village each year. Tobe, who grew up in the village, began accepting trainees seven years ago.

    In 2019, aiming to increase his production of spinach, he spent about 35 million yen (approx. $306,000) to construct 19 new plastic greenhouses and a structure serving as a work area. He was saddled with a 10-year loan that weighed heavily on his household finances, but he decided to increase the number of foreign trainees working for him from two to six, and he also renovated a warehouse at his home to provide a place for the trainees to live.

    With the preparations in place, Tobe thought he could boost his sales, but then in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit. From the spring of that year, the government stepped up restrictions on foreigners entering the country. While there was a temporary reprieve, since January 2021, the government has in effect suspended the entry into Japan of foreign nationals, including technical trainees. In the meantime, the number of trainees accepted into the village has halved, and the shortage of workers has become serious.

    One trainee Tobe had planned to accept, a Chinese man, did come to Japan, but there are no prospects of two other female trainees from Vietnam being able to enter the country. Two of the trainees with Tobe now had been with him from before the coronavirus crisis. One of them had their status of residence extended as a special measure under the pandemic, and is able to work next year, too. But the other one is scheduled to return to their country in December.

    There have been reports across Japan about trainees going missing due to dissatisfaction with their wages, but Tobe has not had any problems with some dozens of trainees he has accepted to date. He reflects, "Many of them are hard-working, saying they want to earn money for their families."

    Liu Li, 41, a trainee who arrived from China this year, told Tobe that he wanted to sustain his family. He and his family contact each other every day on their smartphones. Liu doesn't know when he will be able to see his granddaughter, who has just been born, but he continues to work hard on the farm.

    "There are no coronavirus problems. If my family is well, then I want to remain in Japan. I want to do my best for my daughter's daughter," Liu said.

    Harvesting of the spinach on Tobe's farm begins every day before dawn, and continues until sundown. But even then, the workers are not able to keep up with harvesting during the peak season. Tobe also hires a Japanese person part time, but the woman he asks to help each year is 75 years old. He has gone through the job placement agency "Hello Work" to find others, but hardly any young Japanese workers apply.

    When this reporter visited Tobe in early October, there were too many spinach plants for him to harvest, and he was unable to ship them out. Looking at the plants, he said, "There were some trainees that I wanted to settle here. Because they're coming here to acquire skills as trainees, there are restrictions on how they can work, including on overtime. Really, I wish they can come and work in the same way as a Japanese. The population is decreasing, so in the future it will be impossible to maintain farming with Japanese alone, won't it?"

    (Japanese original by Takayuki Kanamori, Tokyo City News Department)

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