Can Japan Overcome ‘Language Barrier’ for Foreign Workers?

Japan’s effort to attract foreign workers is facing the language barrier challenge. Japan accepts candidates for nurses and aged care workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In 2014, 508 people arrived in Japan to work in these sectors and received Japanese language training before and after arriving in Japan.

Posted on 10/12/14
By Tomonori Taki | Via East Asia Forum
Business billboards in Japanese in Tokyo. (Photo by Shibuya246, Creative Commons License)
Business billboards in Japanese in Tokyo. (Photo by Shibuya246, Creative Commons License)

In May 2014, the Japanese government announced its plan to attract ‘foreign talent’ as part of a campaign to further economic growth. The plan consists of three key points.


First is a review of the Technical Intern Training System. This will be done by strengthening management and supervision of the system, widening the job categories covered by the system, extending the training period from the current period of three years to a maximum of five years and expanding the admission quota.


Second, Japan will ease the acceptance criteria for trainees in the construction and shipbuilding industries for a five-year period.


Third, the Abe government will consider allowing the employees of Japanese firms’ foreign subsidiaries to work in Japan, permitting home support personnel to work in National Strategic Special Zones and enabling international students who have secured Japanese national license to work in the nursing sector.


The above policies will considerably increase the need for foreign workers to be proficient in Japanese language. The allowable period of stay in Japan for technical intern trainees — who currently receive the least amount of Japanese language training — will be increased by almost 70 per cent, reinforcing their need for Japanese language skills. In addition, the policy intends to enlarge the number of technical intern trainees.


But is Japan prepared for the increased demand for Japanese language training?


Currently, Japanese language education for foreign workers varies depending on occupation. Japan accepts candidates for nurses and aged care workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In 2014, 508 people arrived in Japan to work in these sectors. For such candidates, Japanese language training is given before and after arriving in Japan. Most candidates from Indonesia and the Philippines who received this training achieve an N3 level (‘to understand Japanese used in everyday situations to a certain degree’) in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.


With regard to the Technical Intern Training System, however, trainees only receive Japanese language training after arriving in Japan. The extent of the language training that they receive also may differ depending upon the process by which they were invited. In some cases, Japanese companies individually invite trainees, but often small- and medium-sized companies do so collectively through the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO). Two organisations are involved in technical intern trainees’ Japanese language education — the Overseas Human Resources and Industry Development Association (HIDA) and JITCO. HIDA provides trainees with 6 to 13 weeks of Japanese lessons. The 13 week course aims to enable trainees to achieve the N4 level (‘to understand basic Japanese’). JITCO assists its member companies by supplying them with lessons on how to instruct in Japanese as well as teaching materials. But JITCO does not provide Japanese language lessons directly.


The number of trainees invited by individual companies is approximately 5000. Meanwhile, in 2013, approximately 145,000 trainees were invited collectively through JITCO. Whether or not the Japanese language training given to these trainees is effective remains a key question.


In addition to the above two programs, language training is also available for foreign residents in local Japanese communities. This program is run by the Cultural Affairs Agency, a special body of the Japanese Ministry of Education.


A Liberal Democratic Party report published in March 2014 called for the provision of Japanese language education for technical intern trainees before they leave their home country. But there seems to be no reference to this issue in the report published in the same year by the Cabinet Office, nor in the ‘Revision of Japan Revitalization Strategy’.


The ‘Revision of Japan Revitalization Strategy’ states that, as part of the re-evaluation of the Technical Intern Training System, the Japanese government intends to conclude agreements with the governments of foreign workers’ home countries. But it is unclear if the Japanese government ask its counterparts governments to provide Japanese language training at home before departure and whether it will maintain the current policy of requiring Japanese language training after entering Japan. This issue demands serious attention as appropriate language training is essential to breaking down the ‘language barrier’ and successfully accepting and integrating more foreign workers into Japanese society.


Tomonori Taki is Associate Professor at Nagasaki International University, Japan.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original. 

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