Foreign students in Japan face grim job picture in COVID-19 era

TOKYO — Foreign students hoping to find work at Japanese companies are in a tough spot. Many employers have seen their business suffer during the novel coronavirus pandemic and have responded by cutting back on hiring.

The virus has upended many companies’ plans to hire more foreign workers to make up for labor shortages and make their staffs more diverse.

“It’s hard,” said a fourth-year student from South Korea at a private university on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. “Most companies turn me down right off the bat, just because I’m a foreigner.” The student wanted to work for a major manufacturer, but has not received any offers. “I don’t think every international student needs to be accepted, but I wish there was a standard, like passing the Japanese-language proficiency test at level 2 or higher, and then you get a chance,” he said.

A Thai man in his 30s who attends a university in western Japan had hoped to work in finance but has not received any offers. “My Japanese is good, so I want to take advantage of that,” he said, explaining his motivations. “I applied to more than 30 companies, but I didn’t get past the initial screening with most of them.”

Foreign graduates of overseas universities who want to work at Japanese companies are also having a hard time getting a foot in the door. A woman in her 20s who lives in China and completed her graduate studies there in June 2019 was set to join a midsize information technology company in Tokyo in April. But she was unable to get a work visa because of the coronavirus, so her starting date was pushed back to October.

“It can’t be helped, considering the situation,” she thought at the time. Then in late April she received an email from the company informing her that her job offer had been withdrawn. She tried to appeal to the Labor Bureau through a friend in Japan, but authorities refused to take up her case because she was not in the country.

Some 2.2% of international students in Japan had received informal promises of employment according to a survey in late May of 310 students by Mynavi, a job information provider. By contrast, 48% of Japanese university and graduate students had received such promises as of the end of May.

In a typical year, international students tend to receive job offers a bit later than Japanese students, but “it is rare for there to be so few offers by this point,” a Mynavi official said.

Japanese companies have stepped up their hiring of foreign graduates in the past few years, mainly because of a chronic labor shortage brought on by the country’s declining birthrate and aging population. About 36% of companies surveyed said they had hired or planned to hire foreign graduates in 2020, according to Mynavi. That is a 20 percentage point increase compared with just two years earlier.

Then the coronavirus struck. “More companies are starting to cut back on hiring international students in the hotel and tourism sectors,” said Albert Okamura, CEO of One Visa, which assists foreign nationals with online visa applications.

In its survey, Mynavi asked foreign students what they are worried about when it comes to job-hunting in Japan. Respondents could give more than one answer. The most common response, cited by about two-thirds of those surveyed, was hiring cutbacks due to the virus.

With the situation becoming more difficult, there are growing efforts to help international job-seekers. Mynavi offered guidance to international students in an early-July seminar called “The best reply is the key point in job-hunting.” Nine people participated, including students from Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Japanese companies use the same interview methods, whether or not the applicant is Japanese. As a result, many foreign students find interviews “very difficult, and [they] are not sure how best to respond,” said a student from China. At the event, students received practical advice such as, “If you are asked about your shortcomings, don’t simply list your weak points. Use that to transition to your strong points.”

Many in-person events and information sessions for international students have been canceled due to the coronavirus, so “many international students are worried about their lack of information,” according to Mynavi. The job placement company plans to hold sessions on how to fill out job application forms and job-hunting customs, it said.

Foreign students attend a job fair in Tokyo in 2018.

Tokyo-based Fourth Valley Concierge, an employment support specialist, has begun offering help to foreign nationals who have had their job offers rescinded. It introduces them to companies that are actively hiring foreign workers and helps them find employment in Japan.

Japan’s entry restrictions mean that many people from abroad are unable to leave home, even if they have a job offer, Fourth Valley said. In some cases, students have already declined offers.

Many Japanese companies hope foreign workers will be able to do more than just make up for labor shortages. They also want them to bring more diversity, thereby helping to shake up homogenous corporate cultures, or to help foster growth by starting new operations.

“It might become easier to hire talented foreign workers,” said Manaya Hayashi, human resources manager at MTI, which designs websites and apps for smartphones. With many companies holding off on hiring foreign workers, MTI is aiming to hire 10 international students who will graduate in 2021, up from four this year.

The company is focusing on its health care business, such as “Luna Luna,” a health information app for women, as well as an app that manages people’s personal health data. Rapid changes in the industry mean that the company cannot grow simply by investing in existing operations. One reason for hiring foreign workers is to spark innovation by making use of their differing sensibilities, said Hayashi.

MTI is attracting many candidates. Its July 4 online information session drew more than 400 international students, far more than it expected.

About 28,000 international students graduated from Japanese universities and graduate schools in fiscal 2018, according to the Japan Student Services Organization. As the number of native-born graduates peaks, their overseas counterparts will become increasingly valuable.

Whether they come to Japan because they like the culture or to study the latest technology, prospective employers cannot afford to waste the passion and energy of foreign students who want to live and work in Japan.

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