Disruption to the inbound flow of foreign trainees caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has created labor shortages in the nation’s agricultural sector, and led farmers to turn to workers from the tourism industry as a stopgap measure.
Motoyoshi Hashizume was stunned when he heard this month that Japan would ban the entry of foreigners from more than 70 countries and regions, in a bid to contain the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus.
The executive director at Tsumagoi Cabbage Promotion Business Cooperative in Gunma Prefecture said about 250 cabbage farmers in the village had planned to hire a total of 320 foreign trainees to plant young cabbages from late April and harvest them in fall.
Japan has been accepting foreign trainees in the agricultural, fisheries and manufacturing sectors since 1993, under a program to transfer technologies and knowledge to developing countries, although some critics fear the internship program is being used as a cover for companies to import cheap labor.
Farmers work in a cabbage field in the village of Tsumagoi, Gunma Prefecture. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the inbound flow of foreign trainees, causing labor shortages in Japan's agricultural sector. | KYODO
As of the end of 2018, there were about 330,000 foreign trainees in the nation, according to the Organization for Technical Intern Training.
Tsumagoi is one of the Japan’s major cabbage production areas, but has been left in a difficult position. So far, under the entry controls, 220 workers from China, Indonesia and Myanmar bound for the village have been unable to enter the country.
In and around the village, hotels in hot spring resorts have seen many reservations canceled since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and some other populous prefectures. Under the measures, people have been asked to avoid nonessential outings and some businesses have been called on to shut.
The declaration was later expanded to cover all the nation’s 47 prefectures.
So the obvious solution for Hashizume’s cabbage cooperative, to help out its member farmers, was to hire people from the dormant tourism industry.
“Some 20 hotel workers in and around the village have consulted us and had interviews with farmers about working conditions,” said Hashizume, adding that three had agreed to start working from May.
He said the cabbage cooperative had received an increasing number of inquiries about the program, not only from Gunma but also from other prefectures. Those who come from outside Gunma will be required to quarantine themselves for two weeks.
“We hope we can finish this year’s planting of young cabbages as usual, with the help of hotel and ryokan (Japanese inn) staff,” said Hashizume.
In the neighboring prefecture of Nagano, a similar initiative has started as the tourism industry in Karuizawa, a famous highland resort, has also been struggling with a sharp fall in the number of visitors.
“Revenues for hotels and ryokan are expected to fall 70 to 90 percent in April from a year earlier,” said Takeo Suzuki, head of the Karuizawa Inn Association, which has around 120 members.
In the resort town, located about a one-hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo, agriculture is also a major industry.
A local agricultural cooperative has contacted Suzuki and asked whether workers from the hotel industry will be able to help farmers harvest lettuce next month.
Hotels in Karuizawa are normally busy in May and June with wedding ceremonies and parties, but the pandemic has led to widespread cancellations.
“Now the tourism and agriculture sectors in the town can help each other,” said Suzuki, adding that about 30 hotel workers were expected to assist farmers from early May after going through an interview process.
Suzuki also said he hoped the experience of working in agriculture would help improve services at hotels.
“Hotel and ryokan workers, especially kitchen staff, can have a chance to learn about the vegetables grown by local farmers,” he said.
Some technology startups have also sensed a business opportunity in creating and promoting synergies between the tourism and agricultural sectors.
Dive Inc., operator of the hataraku.com website that lists part-time jobs in resort areas and amusement parks, started this month to advertise temporary jobs in agriculture with the support of Sharagri Co., which matches foreign trainees and Japanese farmers.
The two tech firms have so far matched jobs offered by farmers with about 20 applicants, according to Sharagri CEO Hiyuto Ide.
“I hope more people in the tourism industry will become aware that working in agriculture is possible through our project,” he added.