The Technical Intern Training Program was established in 1993, ostensibly as a way for Japan to make a positive international contribution through human resource development. The program allowed young foreigners to work in Japan, acquiring skills and exposure to the country’s advanced technology.
Under the program, the number of foreign trainees reached about 320,000 in 2022, making up roughly 11 per cent of foreign residents in Japan. More than half of the trainees come from Vietnam, with Indonesia and China also sending large numbers. As the purpose of the program is supposed to be human resource development, the maximum period a trainee can stay is capped at five years.
But the reality is that these trainees are widely used to fill labour shortages in industries such as construction and manufacturing in various regions in Japan, rather than being provided with training opportunities.
While the trainees are subject to Japanese labour laws and are supposed to receive equal compensation with their Japanese counterparts, the reality is that reports of unpaid overtime and low wages are not uncommon. Trainees cannot change their jobs in the event of poor working conditions due to the program nominally being a training program rather than a work or immigration program.
This disconnect between the program’s goals and how it is implemented is exacerbated and exploited by foreign brokers who lure trainees to Japan, saddling them with large debts which they struggle to pay off. These conditions led about 7000 trainees to disappear after arriving in Japan in 2021. While an argument can be made that many companies employ trainees legally, what cannot be denied is that the system has inherent structural flaws and is primarily being used to fill Japan’s labour shortages.
Altruistic rhetoric of Japan making an ‘international contribution’ through ‘human resource development’ belie a program beset by problems. The Technical Intern Training Program is criticised internationally for potential human rights violations, including in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Humans report.
At the same time, an increasing awareness of human rights issues due to corporate social responsibility initiatives is causing many companies, particularly those with a large global presence, to eschew ties with companies with poor human rights records. Corporate actions to prevent human rights abuses throughout supply chains are becoming more common and are desirable.
The only solution to bring Japan’s foreign worker program in line with global expectations around the treatment of foreign workers is for the Japanese government to reform the system. The government needs to focus on protecting the human rights of all those who come to work in Japan.
While the interim report of the expert panel notes that abolishing the program is necessary, it also recommends retaining the skill development aspects of the current system. But as long as trainees are accepted under the false premise that human resource development is the main purpose, true reform will be difficult.
Reform must mean creating a new system that is honest about the driving factor being Japan’s need to shore up its labour force as much as any desire to contribute to international human resource development. This new system must incorporate effective measures to strengthen and prioritise trainees’ human rights, improve job mobility and enhance program supervision to better protect trainees, ensure regulatory compliance and prevent abuse.
The interim report also recommends trainees who meet the requirements should be allowed to smoothly transition onto the Specified Skilled Worker Visa, first established in 2018. This recommendation would be a very important step towards reform. The visa change could create a pathway for workers with little experience in a narrow but expanding range of industries to come to Japan as trainees, acquire skills and then use them to secure long-term employment in the country. These workers might have, for the first time, a legal pathway that could eventually result in residency and family reunification.
The expert panel only submits recommendations to the minister of justice and does not have the power to decide whether or not to abolish the current system. It is unclear what conclusion the government will be draw from the recommendations.
Time is not on Japan’s side. According to the latest population projections from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan’s working age population will decline by 40 per cent by 2070 — even with the assumption that the ratio of foreigners residing in Japan reaches about 10 per cent in 2070. Population shrinkage will exacerbate already large labour shortages.
Compounding this problem is a weak yen and stagnant wages. Japan can no longer assume it is an attractive destination for labour. To attract international talent, Japan must be proactive, work to become a country that people want to come to and truly internationalise by accepting, empowering and protecting workers and their families regardless of national origin.
Yuri Okina is Chairperson of the Japan Research Institute and Executive Vice President at the Nippon Institute for Research Advancement.