Commuters heading to work walk on a concourse at a railway terminal station in Tokyo on Jan. 31, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
A recent survey of 11,000 Japanese companies found that over half face a shortage of full-time employees.The labor crisis is not only triggered by the aging population, but by the reluctance of companies to offer higher wages. You can walk downtown in any major city and literally see signs where businesses have had to close due to not being able to find staff (jin-in busoku). So, it comes as no surprise that more and more young Japanese are looking for a better salary abroad.
“The minimum wage for a part-time job in the service sector is incredibly low at 850 yen [US$6] an hour, while a full-time salary does not allow anyone to really save any money,” says Takumi san, 27, who, after graduation, decided to move to Australia where he worked in a strawberry field, picking fruits.
“After a year I managed to save more than one million yen [$7,500]. That would have never have happened if I stayed. In Japan I could barely save 10,000 yen a month,” he said.
"Japanese coming to Australia are just looking to make a quick buck"
Japanese have usually looked at the option of working abroad for a specific cultural purpose, called kokusaitekina shiya — to take a look at the world from an “international perspective.”
“Nowadays the Japanese coming to Australia are just looking to make a quick buck honestly,” Takumi added.
A consequence is that Australia currently has a surplus of workers while Japanese companies have a hard time even finding part-timers; almost a third of businesses face a shortage of part-time workers.
The catering sector, which traditionally has a high number of non-regular workers, is particularly affected. Young Japanese are not willing to do those jobs for a meager salary, and those jobs are now mostly occupied by foreigners from low-wage countries such as Nepal, Vietnam and Uzbekistan.
But the shortfall is impossible to fill as entry to the labor market in Japan for foreigners is not an easy path.
Yuki, who I contacted via social media, is a 30-year-old expat who works in a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. He decided to leave Japan in the hope of raising his standard of living.
"In the US I have the advantage of having a much higher pension for my future"
“My annual salary is $80,000 a year while the equivalent in Japan would have been less than half that," he said.
A popular Japanese YouTuber has named his channel “A Refugee Abroad.” He lived in Australia for two years followed by one year in New Zealand before settling down in the United States where he has two part-time jobs.
“I used to work as an English teacher in Japan where I made half of what I make now. And in the US I have the advantage of having a much higher pension for my future,” he said. To make it clear that he has no plans to return to his homeland he presents a few convincing statistics.
“Consider that in the US there is basically no overworking and where you get paid 1.5 times the hourly salary for overtime, and twice for working on Sunday. In Japan, you would get an hourly salary of 1.5 only if you overwork after 10 pm.”
But that is not all.
“One of the things that make working in the US more appealing is the absence of forced nomikai — the drinking parties after work — which in Japan are basically an extra activity to be performed after work. And you can only avoid that at the risk of being labeled antisocial. In the United States this nomikai culture is literally considered harassment,” he said.
"The United States lacks the laborious ethos of having to nurture new employees"
It needs to be added that office women in the US don’t have to wear makeup like in Japan and tattoos are not considered taboo.
Saori, 34, now lives in Osaka but she used to work in New York where she spent three years. She admits that there are also downsides. “Once you quit your job or get fired in the US, which happens more often than in Japan, then you also lose your health insurance,” she said.
But for every downside, there seems to always be an upside.
“You can take a full week paid holiday any time and nobody complains, while in Japan you have to negotiate it beforehand with the other co-workers and often end up just not taking a vacation at all. And if you do it is never more than three days.”
Also, the United States lacks the laborious ethos of having to nurture new employees from the time they first enter the company, smoothing their entry into the new environment. That is why the competence level requirement in Japan is much lower, and that is also reflected in the very poor productivity of Japanese businesses.
All in all, it can be said that in the Anglophone countries favored by Japanese emigrants, there is an absence of the infamous burakku kigyo, those companies that literally work their employees to death.
“In Japan, you are often told to arrive 30 minutes before work starts, and to basically devote yourself to the company, so much so that working overtime is part of the regular routine. I only came back to Japan due to the fact that I couldn’t renew my work visa, but usually, if a Japanese starts his working experience abroad, he will choose not to come back,” said Saori.