Photo/IllutrationA Chinese technical trainee handles squid at Morishita Suisan Inc. in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. (Yosuke Watanabe)

  • Photo/Illustraion

OFUNATO, Iwate Prefecture--Employers in the labor-strapped Tohoku region fear the new working visa that will bring more foreign workers to Japan will actually hurt areas that are still recovering from the 2011 disaster.

Unlike the technical trainee program, the new “specified skills” visa system, which took effect on April 1, allows foreign workers to change their workplaces and homes on their own will.

Small and midsize Tohoku companies fear their non-Japanese workers will leave the disaster-hit region to seek better-paying jobs in Tokyo and other urban centers.

“When foreign workers hope to transfer to urban regions to work, there will be no legal means to stop them,” a Fisheries Agency official said in Sendai in early March.

The official was providing an explanation to local seafood business operators ahead of the enforcement of the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law.

Although the official said the new visa is designed to deal with labor shortages, attendees expressed anxiety, saying they would be helpless without the foreign laborers.

Seafood production is one of the main industries in Tohoku.

Mikio Morishita, 69, said his company in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, processes different types of seafood, such as squid and saury, in different seasons but cannot introduce dedicated machines for each marine product.

He said he must rely on manpower but has had difficulty hiring Japanese recruits.

In fact, his company, Morishita Suisan Inc., gave up employing Japanese workers after the local population drastically dropped following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

Now, he employs more non-Japanese workers.

Morishita started accepting Chinese laborers in 1993. Some of them temporarily returned to China after Morishita’s plant was damaged in the disaster, but 28 Chinese currently work with Morishita, accounting for more than 20 percent of all employees.

Many small and midsize enterprises in Tohoku are more or less dependent on non-Japanese hired under the technical trainee program, which is designed to teach skills to foreigners.

Under the new visa system, those who have finished three-year technical training courses will be granted the specified skills visa without exams, allowing them to stay in Japan for up to an additional five years.

Workers on the new visa are allowed to switch their jobs in the same occupational categories.

According to Itsunori Onodera, a Lower House member from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party elected from Miyagi Prefecture, the new mechanism will, for example, enable a foreign trainee involved in salted squid production in Tohoku to obtain the new visa in the food manufacturing category and start working at a bakery in Tokyo for higher wages.

The populations in coastal areas in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures dropped nearly 10 percent following the 2011 disaster. The ratios of job openings to job seekers for those areas are still higher than the national average, meaning they are suffering from labor shortages.

Referring to the likelihood that many foreign workers will move to urban areas after the introduction of the new visa, Shoko Sasaki, director-general of the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, said the government will “demand companies refrain from poaching foreign workers if such workers are found disproportionately concentrated in large urban areas.”

However, the effectiveness of that measure is still unclear.

(This article was written by Osamu Uchiyama and Yosuke Watanabe.)