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Students with foreign roots hit job-search wall in Japan

A Yoshinoya beef bowl restaurant (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The operator of the Yoshinoya beef bowl restaurant chain sparked outrage recently when it emerged that it had denied a student a seat at a May recruiting session because a human resources staffer assumed they were a foreigner -- despite Yoshinoya Holdings Co. advertising that it is actively hiring foreign employees.

    The case came to light when the student posted the alleged rejection email from the company on social media.

    According to Yoshinoya, the company canceled recruiting event reservations for several students after deciding they were foreigners based on their names, addresses, schools and other information. The firm told them, "It would be very difficult to obtain a work visa, and it is unlikely that you could join the firm even if you got an informal job offer." However, at least one of the students claimed on social media that they were a Japanese national.

    The firm presents a positive stance toward recruiting foreign nationals on its website, stating that such workers "introduce new values and fresh ideas, and invigorate the organization and allow a shift in thinking among the whole staff."

    In line with this policy, the company has hired at least 20 foreign nationals since 2015. However, after the firm had to cancel an informal job offer to a prospective hire in 2019 after they could not get a work visa, it began denying some job-seekers access to recruiting sessions in 2021. Yoshinoya has reversed course following mounting criticism over the most recent case.

    But what lurks behind Yoshinoya's very public embarrassment is Japanese companies' failure to understand the need to eradicate discrimination and respect diversity.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has created a brochure titled "In pursuit of fair recruitment screenings," which points out that being aware of an applicant's nationality during screening carries the risk of biasing the company's recruiting decisions. A 2016 survey of foreign nationals by the Ministry of Justice found that, of the 2,788 who had sought or found work in Japan, 697 (25%) said they had been rejected because they were not Japanese.

    Yiqun Gong, head of the nonprofit group "Living in Peace" (Photo provided by the individual)

    It is also essential to consider student job seekers' diverse roots. "Living in Peace," a nonprofit organization providing employment and other support for refugees living in Japan, conducted a survey of 198 recruiters at private companies hiring workers with foreign roots. According to Living in Peace head Yiqun Gong, exchanges with company officials revealed that, while businesses are increasingly aware of international students, they have little understanding that there are long-term foreign residents of Japan.

    There are many people in Japan with foreign passports who were born and raised here, and many students with Japanese nationality who do not look East Asian. Unless companies take notice of these people, they could jump to the conclusion that they are ineligible to work in Japan, or ignore their ability and aptitudes while focusing solely on their roots.

    Moving forward, Living in Peace plans to develop corporate training program to deepen firms' understanding of these issues.

    "Our survey also found that some companies have advanced to the stage of appointing staff with foreign roots as recruiters. I hope more will do so, to provide an environment for students with various backgrounds to feel at ease hunting for jobs and working energetically," Gong said.

    -- Many feel discrimination and prejudice

    Among students who have sat job exams in Japan, many said they felt discrimination and prejudice because of their nationality or roots.

    "A resume containing a foreign-looking name means the applicant has to start one step behind," said a man born in Japan to Myanmar refugee parents. The comment came during a 2020-2022 survey conducted by Living in Peace in conjunction with Fumiko Takahashi, a specially appointed instructor at the University of Tokyo, and others.

    In interviews with eight people in their 20s to 30s with family backgrounds in Brazil and Peru, one respondent said, "Once (recruiters) learned that I'm a foreign citizen, they handed me a paper to write where I had tattoos, my nationality and registered domicile." Another complained, "The only thing they asked me during the interview was about my background." Both had lived in Japan for over 10 years, and at least one of the respondents was born in Japan.

    Kwansei Gakuin University social welfare professor Joe Takeda surveyed 105 students, including international students and Korean residents of Japan, who had looked for jobs between fiscal 2012 and 2021. Some 40% of the respondents reported feeling like they had been subjects of "discrimination and prejudice" due to their nationality and other personal attributes.

    Also, of 52 students who were set to start job-hunting, 60% felt anxiety, but less than 20% of them said they could seek advice from the university's career center. Behind the trend "is a sense of helplessness, that their worries will not be understood even if they ask for advice," Takeda said. He added that he wanted to reinforce the consultation system for students in cooperation with the university's career center.

    (Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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