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Japan looks to open transport industry to foreign drivers amid labor shortages

Massimo Bellini, an Italian national, who works as a taxi driver at Hinomaru Kotsu Co., is seen in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on July 10, 2023. (Mainichi/Ai Yokota)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has begun to consider opening up the transport industry to foreign drivers of trucks, buses and taxis by adding them to a specified resident category amid significant labor shortages.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is discussing the matter with the Immigration Services Agency as it looks to add the automobile transport industry to the "specified skilled worker" category, a resident status for foreign nationals who are ready to work immediately in industries struggling to secure labor. As Japan's domestic labor force is in short supply due to the declining population, it is likely that the movement to seek foreign human resources will accelerate. The government is aiming to implement the change in policy by the end of this fiscal year.

    From April 2024, overtime for truck and other drivers will be capped at 960 hours per year. There are concerns that this will further exacerbate the labor shortage, and the situation has been dubbed the "2024 problem," where it will be impossible to meet demand for transportation of people and goods.

    The Japan Trucking Association, the Nihon Bus Association and the Japan Federation of Hire-Taxi Associations each stated in their fiscal 2023 business plans formulated this spring that they intend to request that drivers be added to the list of those with specified skills. In response, the ministry is working to determine the extent of the labor shortage and the number of foreign nationals expected to be accepted over the next five years, and to develop skill tests for drivers tailored to the type of business, such as loading and unloading luggage and communicating with customers.

    Number of drivers plunges like a final blow to the industry

    According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the ratio of job offers compared to seekers for truck drivers was 2.12 times as of June this year, while the ratio for bus drivers was 2.10 times and taxi drivers was 3.95 times, far exceeding the average for all occupations at 1.12 times.

    There is also an urgent need to recruit the younger generation. The taxi industry, in particular, is dominated by the elderly, with the average age of drivers at 58.3 years old as of fiscal 2022. The number of corporate cab drivers was roughly 340,000 in fiscal 2011, but declined by more than 30% in 10 years to some 220,000 in fiscal 2021. The Japan Federation of Hire-Taxi Associations complained, "Fear of contracting the coronavirus has further caused elderly drivers to retire one after another, and in recent years, the number of drivers has plummeted as if giving a final blow to the industry."

    A Japanese driver's license is required to work as a driver, and a "Class 2 license" is mandatory for buses and taxis that carry passengers. The tests have been conducted only in Japanese, which is a hurdle for foreigners. It is necessary to consider how to support foreigners amid the language barrier when they take the Class 2 tests and how to ensure safe driving. Some have suggested that a training system should be established for foreign drivers, but how to establish such a system remains an issue.

    The Japanese government set a ceiling of 345,150 foreign nationals in 12 industrial fields, including nursing care and construction, for the five years from fiscal 2019, when the system was established. The government intends to decide the upper limit after fiscal 2024 at a Cabinet meeting by the end of this fiscal year, based on the five-year acceptance record of each field. So far, no industrial fields have been added. An immigration agency official said, "The idea is not to hire foreigners cheaply, but to have a win-win situation for both Japanese and foreigners."

    (Japanese original by Ai Yokota, Lifestyle, Science & Environment News Department; Hiroko Michishita, Tokyo Business News Department; and Akira Iida, Tokyo City News Department)

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