Hokkaido towns seek coexistence with foreign workers

Foreign technical trainees gather for a Christmas party in Mombetsu in December.

Amid rapidly accelerating depopulation, many municipalities in Hokkaido are facing the problem of how to stop the flight of the young, working age generation in order to sustain their community.

As overseas workers have become more and more important, municipalities are coming up with ideas to welcome them as members of communities while trying to stop young people from leaving their hometowns.

The Hokkaido Shimbun visited some cities and towns that continue to seek coexistence with foreign residents even under the coronavirus pandemic.

Public-private sector help for trainees: Mombetsu

Late last year, some 60 technical trainees from China, Vietnam and Thailand enjoyed a Christmas party at the Mombetsu International Exchange Station facility in the city of Mombetsu. With national flags from various countries hanging from the ceiling, trainees talked in various languages — including Japanese — over dinner and games.

The venue had just been relocated and reopened in November as a support center for foreign trainees.

“It’s fun to come here. Senior members give us a lot of help and we can meet other people,” says Li Meiduo, 33, who came from Liaoyang, China. She came to Japan to earn money for her 6-year-old son’s education in China. She works at a seafood processing factory in the city, shelling scallops.

“Every technical trainee is supporting Mombetsu’s industry,” said Takahashi Nobuyoshi, 54, the head of the city’s international exchange promotion team.

The population in Mombetsu was about 21,000 as of January 2021. Among them, the working population age 15 to 64 with Japanese nationality was about 11,000, down 20% over the past decade. The pace of the drop is nearly double the speed of Hokkaido’s average of 12%.

Many youngsters leave the city for Sapporo or leave Hokkaido entirely after they finish high school, leaving the mainstay fishing and seafood processing industries chronically understaffed. A local processor says no one takes up the job as young people tend to avoid dealing with the cold water in seafood processing.

This is where foreign technical trainees come in. In 2020, the number of people who moved out of Mombetsu was 934, while those who moved in was 947 — a net increase of 13. Of those who moved in, 232 were foreign nationals, meaning the city’s net population would have declined if it were for just the Japanese.

As of January 2021, the city had 501 foreign residents, up by about 200 over five years. Many of them worked as trainees at processing plants and fishing cooperatives.

According to analysis by the Hokkaido government, there are generally three cases in which foreign nationals can contribute to net population increase.

The first is an increase of foreign nationals being hired by the travel and hotel industries — an example seen in the town of Kutchan.

The second is by moving to towns and cities near places like Kutchan where they can find work.

The third is an increase of foreign technical trainees in fishing, construction, manufacturing and other primary industry jobs. This scenario has become more common in recent years.

In Mombetsu, the public and private sector work together to support the trainees. The city established the predecessor of the Mombetsu International Exchange Station in fiscal 2018 with cooperation from businesses, human rights experts, and volunteers. The city provides multiple staffer who speaks Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai to support the trainees.

The city’s goal is the promotion of coexistence, rather than just securing a labor force. It not only wants to support technical trainees who can stay up to five years, but also help them change their residency status to “specified skilled workers,” who can renew their status indefinitely in certain industries.

In the current fiscal year which ends in March, the city also started offering internships for foreign students across Japan under which those seeking internships are paid ¥100,000 if they take up an internships in Mombetsu. Ten students have participated in the program at four locations, and one has even secured a job.

“Local municipalities cannot be sustained if we don’t seek help from foreign nationals,” Takahashi, the Mombetsu city official, said. “First off, we will be a city that people choose. We’ll take the lead with ‘Mombetsu style.’”

Volunteer citizens offer Japanese lessons: Eniwa

Larger cities in Hokkaido are also facing the same situation in which foreign workers complement labor shortages. In the Ishikari region, which includes Sapporo, the number of foreign technical trainees hovered between 200 and 300 until 2014, but it has surged since 2015. In 2020, the region had 2,551 foreign trainees, accounting for 20% of all trainees in Hokkaido.

In Eniwa, which neighbors Sapporo, the number of foreign residents doubled in the past five years to about 500, thanks to an increase of trainees from the Philippines and Vietnam who work for bread factories and in the construction industry. Some of them have married Japanese citizens in the town.

In 2019, Eniwa solicited volunteers to teach Japanese to foreign residents as the city’s survey showed that many of them were having troubles with the language. About 40 local citizens have signed up and will start offering Japanese lessons in February. “The situation keeps changing. We want to provide a strong support for foreign residents,” said Kaname Sugimoto, 36, from the city’s planning section.

The environment surrounding foreign trainees has seen various problems as well. There have been reports about their disappearance due to harsh working conditions, while the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused some of them to lose their jobs or face difficulties in returning home.

One of the keys in sustaining communities and stopping the population outflow would be to have a mindset to accept foreign residents not as just fillers for labor shortages but as true members of the communities, experts said.

According to statistics from the Immigration Services Agency, as of the end of 2020, technical trainees accounted for the biggest share, at 32%, among foreign nationals’ residency status in Hokkaido. Permanent residents, who have cleared certain conditions such as a residence of 10 years or more, accounted for 15%, followed by foreign students who accounted for 10%.

Among prefectures, Hokkaido came in 17th in terms of the number of foreign residents by prefecture.

According to Hokkaido Labor Bureau’s survey, as of October 2020, Vietnam topped the list of countries where workers and trainees came from, followed by China and the Philippines. Among the sectors in which foreign workers were engaged was manufacturing, agriculture and forestry, construction, wholesale and retail, and hospitality and food services.

Compared to five years ago, the percentage of Chinese nationals dropped, while the number of workers in the agriculture, forestry and construction industry saw an increase.

Student loan repayments

Local governments in Hokkaido are also taking steps to stop the outflow of young people. One of the outstanding measures is a program under which municipalities shoulder part of student loan repayments on condition that graduates take up jobs at local entities.

According to the Cabinet Secretariat, 62 municipalities in Hokkaido offered such program as of June 2021, more than double the number from five years earlier. The effort is starting to show results in some places.

“I may have chosen a company in a different town if this program weren’t offered,” says Kaho Tateyama, 21, who works for Kitasorachi Shinkin Bank, based in Fukagawa. She said the repayment support program led her to keep living in Fukagawa.

After she graduated from high school in Aomori Prefecture, she entered a junior college in the city of Fukagawa. She had considered working in Aomori but her father found the city’s repayment system online. Since the amount of repayment was about ¥1.4 million, Tateyama wanted to reduce the burden of repaying the loan as much as possible.

The number of people in their 20s in Fukagawa was about 1,400 as of January 2021, about half the number 20 years ago. In fiscal 2019, the city began offering ¥10,000 a month for up to three years for young people to repay student loans on the condition that they take up jobs in the city.

In the three years through the current fiscal year, 11 people have used the program, working for beauty salons, nursery schools and other places in the city.

The central government has also seen this program as a good way to keep youngsters across the nation in their hometowns and began offering municipalities subsidies for half the cost of running the program in fiscal 2015, which started in April 2015.

In Hokkaido, seven local governments including Sapporo introduced the program in fiscal 2020, and another eight including Kutchan took it up in the current fiscal year.

Some municipalities have set conditions such as specifying the cities where applicants grew up in to promote “U-turns” or offering the program in specific sectors such as nursery schools and nursing homes for the elderly that face serious labor shortages.

The effectiveness of such programs varies, however. The town of Kimobetsu introduced the support program in April 2021 on condition that applicants work in the town, but no one has applied. An official said the city lacked sufficient promotional measures for the program, as information was simply posted on websites of the town and Hokkaido.

As the number of children keeps falling in Japan, municipalities with limited budget and manpower are competing with each other to offer incentives that may help keep their communities alive.

Welcoming in the community

Takashi Miyairi, professor of agricultural economics at Hokkai-Gakuen University, pointed out the need for municipalities, businesses and the local communities to cooperate with each other to welcome foreign nationals as members of the community.

Miyairi said employment of foreign workers is continuing even under the COVID-19 pandemic, relying more on them than ever before.

Worries over domestic labor shortages began surfacing in 2013 when Tokyo was chosen as the host city for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with an increase in the number of foreign trainees becoming most apparent in around 2015, he said.

“Trainees had typically worked in the primary industry in rural areas, but their employment in the construction and food processing industries in large cities has increased,” he said. “They are working at factories making food for convenience stores in the Sapporo area or at construction sites for large development projects.”

“How should we interact with them?” he asks.

When creating a new residency status for “specified skilled workers,” then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kept saying it wasn’t an immigration policy, said Miyairi, discouraging local municipalities of their sense of commitment to accept them as members of their community.

“The duration for residency status of trainees is limited, but they are important supporters of industries, like any other people who rotate their working destinations,” he said. “Each and every one of them is a member of their community.”

Miyairi talked of the need for businesses, local governments and communities to work together to offer support for foreign workers, not just leaving it to volunteers.

“We should take a step-by-step approach, such as properly welcoming their children at nurseries and schools or informing them about garbage and other community rules,” he said. “If we don’t take those steps, it may only lead to discrimination.”

In Hokkaido, the population peaked in 1998, 10 years earlier than Japan as a whole, he said.

“In that sense, how Hokkaido establishes its model in accepting foreign nationals will be a test case for the whole country.”