“Japanese workers to the world,” headlines Spa (Oct 11-18) in English. The yen falls and falls, the population ages and ages. Young Japanese look into the future and see what? More of the same, no end in sight. The wide world beckons – less to tourists, lately, than to job seekers.
Meet “Toru” – in Bangkok; or “Mr Seki” – in Singapore; or Yuji Yoshida – in Australia. We’re not told their ages. They look young – Toru a business executive, Seki a sushi chef, Yoshida a farm worker. The oldest among the overseas Japanese workers Spa speaks to – whose age is given, though not his name – is 67, working as a barber in Canada. In Japan, the magazine says, he’d likely have been nudged into retirement years ago.
When Toru moved to Bangkok in April 2021, the coronavirus pandemic was at its height but opportunity knocked. An agency connected him with a Japanese medical equipment firm. There were management vacancies in the Bangkok office, starting monthly salary 50,000 baht (200,000 yen) with the prospect of raises beyond anything likely in Japan – to 60,000 baht now and presumably steadily upward. The relatively low cost of living means he saves the equivalent of 70,000 yen a month. Spa notes an ironic twist: Not long ago rich Japanese came to Thailand to spend money. Now working Japanese come to earn a living.
We’re not told what initially drew Seki to Singapore when, but we can guess as to the former: a sense – fulfilled – of potential unlimited. Japan is constricted not only by its narrowing economy but by its tendency, only partly shaken off, to keep the restless individual within traditionally sanctioned bounds. For all the anxiety – or maybe because of it – occasioned by the widening gap between rich and poor, “Japan still lacks a culture of rewarding ability,” says global and domestic employment researcher Tatsuo Moriyama.
Sushi, like sumo, is old and dignified enough to be weighed down by custom. It’s a crowded field, besides, whereas in Singapore a trained chef can open a restaurant with the feeling of being a pioneer in a new frontier. The restaurant Seki opened is called “At Twenty” and nets him a monthly income of 8,000 Singapore dollars (800,000 yen). Well-healed Singaporeans, he says, know their sushi, think nothing of laying down the equivalent of 50,000 yen for a meal, and are convinced, moreover, that only Japanese chefs can offer the real thing.
Seki gives the resulting “boom” another 10 years. Already aspiring sushi chefs are training in Japan; they’ll come home with Japanese skills, and Japanese nationality will count for less if anything.
Yoshida felt himself drawn to Australia – strange, perhaps, given that he knew no English, but a working holiday program offered at least 12 months of whatever happened to come up, and what did was farm work – why not? The owner of what would likely be a vast tract by Japanese standards grows bananas. Yoshida admitted up front his English was severely limited – it’s not something you can keep to yourself, after all. “Well,” said the owner, made the more agreeable perhaps by COVID-related dearth of immigrant farm workers, “we’ll give you a job you can do alone” – propping up sagging trees, 9nine hours a day, four days a week. It’s minimum wage labor, but Australia’s minimum wage, the equivalent of 2,000 yen an hour, is at least twice Japan’s. We’re told nothing of Yoshida’s future plans. Maybe he doesn’t have any. Let the future take care of itself; his photo shows him looking young enough to be thinking.
The unnamed 67-year-old barber in Vancouver, Canada, works for a hair-care and skin-care establishment named “Oo” – “founded,” says its website, “on the principles of Japanese gold standards of beauty and wellness.” Here “the Japanese art of skin care and hair grooming” is combined with “the spirit of Japanese hospitality, or omotenashi.” Not all the employees are Japanese. One is Iranian, but his supple fingers seem to have been trained in Japan, and as long as the fingers remain supple and the hospitality sincere, age seems no barrier. Japan, it seems, will have to level a few of its own barriers if it wants to keep its most able and venturesome workers home.© Japan Today