The sound of heavy machinery, repeating the same task again and again, fills the air. On conveyor belts lie white-like-snow enoki mushrooms, taken from the cultivation room next door. From there, workers hand pick the best ones and with the help of machines, fill cardboard boxes waiting to be shipped.
Here, in Nagano City, lies the factory, K.I. Ogiwara, where 82,000 mushrooms are produced daily. Hard at work in this factory,along with many Japanese staff, in white overalls and masks, are 8 foreign technical interns. Nagano Prefecture has the highest production of mushrooms in Japan. There are approximately 60 Chinese interns working in different divisions of the company.
“Even if we put out job ads, very few Japanese people apply for the jobs.” says managing director Ogiwara, with a disheartened face. The company started hiring foreigners tens of years ago. Even with the help of machinery and the push to adopt labor-saving measures, there are still some parts that need hands-on labor. Interns “can do the work, work every day, and have good work ethics.”
In March, around 50 individual dormitories for interns will be complete. In addition, there are plans to change existing dormitories from sharehouse to individual dormitories.
The expected cost of construction and renovation for the dorms is around 180 million yen. Even so, the reasoning for spending such a large amount of money is the thought that interns are building up stress when living in a sharehouse. “In order to increase motivation to work, we must improve their (intern) treatment so as to make them feel like they are invaluable assets to the company.”
As with the trend throughout Japan, the number of foreign workers working within Nagano prefecture continues to grow. According to the Labor Force Survey and other government statistics, the ratio of foreign workers represented by foreigner dependence is 1 in 70 people. This number has increased 1.6 times since the Lehman Shock in 2009. Looking at the ratio increase by prefecture, Nagano comes in 42nd place but looking just at the increase of foreign people, Nagano sits at 21st place.
The national census, which looks at the ratio of foreigners in different industries by prefecture, shows that the highest number of foreign workers is the manufacturing industry, at 1 in 31. Coming in after is hotel and restaurant services at 1 in 41 and farming and lodging industries at 1 in 47.
The sight of foreigners walking the cobblestones in hot spring resort area Shibu Onsen has become nothing of surprise. “For many years, there has been a very serious problem of labor shortage.” Mr. Yamada, the owner of Shibu Hotel reflects on his decision 3-4 years ago of employing foreign workers.
At the moment, aside from internships and working holiday staff, there are Filipino and Nepal full-time workers are also working at the hotel. In February Taiwanese and starting in April, one Nepal full-time worker are expected to start working. At Shibu Hotel, 20% of customers are foreigners.
These foreign staff act as interpreters to foreign customers, as well as assisting Japanese customers. “Foreign staff who are interested in and like Japanese culture, are motivated to work here. This helps brings life to the resort area.”
In Nagano, there have also been some problems with foreign workers. In October 2018, there was an incident where an intern without a licence was asked to drive a lift truck. There have also been cases of interns disappearing without a trace. “Using social media, they (interns) gather information and end up going to places like Nagoya where wages are higher”, says a representative of one of many intern management companies.
And with the increase in foreign workers comes the growing need for Japanese language education. Starting in January, Nagano has started to train “Japanese exchange staff” who are responsible for being language partners for foreign workers and a go-between to those living in the area.
In Ueda City and Matsumoto City, there are also plans to create places to help foreigners with learning conversational Japanese, to help them get through daily life.