Photo/IllutrationThe Lawson Inc. convenience store chain holds a training session for foreign students in May 2018. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Justice Ministry plans to widen the Designated Activities visa to allow foreign graduates of universities in Japan to work at low-skilled hospitality jobs and further alleviate labor shortages around Japan.

Companies in various industries, such as convenience store operators and retail outlets, and those outside major cities have called on the government for long-term measures to replenish their depleted work forces, particularly as tourist numbers continue to increase.

The ministry has drafted a policy that will make it easier for foreigners who graduate from universities or graduate schools in Japan to gain jobs in the country. Specifically, it wants to give them more job opportunities that make use of their high-level Japanese language skills.

The ministry aims to introduce the new measures in April.

Also in April, the government plans to introduce the “specified skills” resident status for foreign workers under the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law.

However, hospitality occupations permitted under the specified skills visa are limited to those in restaurants and hotels.

The ministry will expand the scope of the Designated Activities visa to cover work at convenience stores and other retail shops, such as electronics stores.

Those targeted are foreigners who have graduated from four-year university programs or graduate schools in Japan and achieved N1, the highest level in the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

In comparison, foreigners accepted under the specified skills visa are expected to have N4-level Japanese, which means they can conduct daily conversations in the language but not complicated discussions.

The Designated Activities visa can be renewed annually with no upper limit on renewal times.

According to the Japan Student Services Organization, about 135,000 foreign students were studying at four-year universities or graduate schools in Japan as of May 2018.

Generally, graduates change their student visa to the “engineer, specialist in humanities or international services” visa when they land jobs.

But the rules for changing visa status are very strict. For example, a graduate cannot change a student visa for a job that has nothing to do with the skills learned at university.

According to the organization, the employment rate of foreign graduates of universities in Japan in fiscal 2016 was only about 36 percent.

In 2016, the Japanese government set a goal of raising the employment rate to 50 percent.

“Excellent foreign students who had gained a good understanding of Japan had to return to their countries,” a Justice Ministry official said.

In 2017, a record high 22,419 foreign graduates changed their visa status, and more than 90 percent of them obtained the visa for “engineer or specialist in humanities or international services.”

Many of them entered such occupations as translation, interpretation or transaction duties with foreign companies.

Under the current system, foreign graduates with that visa can work at convenience stores and electrics retail stores. But they generally can only perform tasks using their language abilities at large outlets with dedicated service counters for foreign customers in big cities.

As a result, independently operated franchised stores have been unable to continue employing part-time foreign students because they lose their residence status after graduation.

The ministry plans to allow foreign students to work in other occupations under the Designated Activities visa that make best use of their language skills.

Specifically, the ministry wants foreign students who graduate from regional universities to work for local companies in those areas.

Regional companies have lacked available jobs that allow foreign students to use what they have learned at university. Although many foreign students want to work in those regions, they have had to give up their job search.

The ministry also expects foreign graduates with the Designated Activities visa to play intermediary roles as interpreters and in other duties for the specified skills visa holders.