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Diversity that revitalises rural Japan: International students becoming a part of local communities

Japan has never been more committed to opening up to the world.

While globalisation has come under challenge in other parts of the world, the country has championed openness. In recent years, it has promoted free trade agreements and taking more active roles for multilateral institutions abroad while becoming ever more open to the outside world. A record number of overseas visitors, students, and workers are making their way to Japan, not only to its major cities, but also its rural areas.

Recent targets underline this deepening commitment to internationalisation.

In 2016, the current administration announced the goal for 50 per cent of overseas students in the country to remain and find employment in Japan. The proportion of those doing so has steadily increased with the number of foreign students finding employment in Japan reaching an all-time high of 26,000 in 2018, the latest figures available. Another target – that of increasing the total number of foreign students to the country to 300,000, a nearly doubling of ten years ago – has been reached.

Driving these trends is a critical need to combat depopulation, aging and shortages in the workforce. One strategy is to attract young dynamic talent from overseas, particularly those who can help local economies forge links to overseas markets. For rural regions particularly affected by depopulation and trends of younger workers moving away to larger cities, the recent openness has been a boon. Overseas students are discovering “second homes” and injecting new energy, skills and ideas that are helping to revitalise rural Japan in surprising ways.

What are the reasons for such positive internationalisation?


Preparing for Japanese careers

Across the country, universities and local governments have been acting in concert to realise these happy matches.

Since 2017, the central government has been providing grants to 12 universities across the country, including Ehime and Kumamoto universities. Based on three pillars – teaching business Japanese, case-study courses for employees, and internships at local firms, the programme is helping foreign students to plan and establish a career in Japan and offers scholarships and preferential work visas upon completion.

Ehime University, located in Matsuyama City in western Japan, has been training international students for employment in Japan for 10 years. The current Career Development Programme for International Students, now into its third year, emphasises collaboration between Ehime Prefecture and local companies, and assists foreign students with gaining employment throughout the prefecture favoured for its moderate climate and low living costs.

Training class and internship presentations at the Career Development Program for International Students, Ehime University. Training class and internship presentations at the Career Development Program for International Students, Ehime University. Training class and internship presentations at the Career Development Programme for International Students, Ehime University.

The programme has been increasingly popular among undergrads and graduate students. 70 overseas students took the course last year and of the batch graduating, 77 per cent of them have found employment in Japanese companies, a majority of them in Ehime.

“The programme has also been a positive learning process for companies,” says HINO Masao, visiting professor and advisor to the Ehime University programme. Hino, a former local bank employee, advises dozens of local companies who participate in the programme and monitors foreign students’ career progress after graduation.

Ehime University campus and students presenting at a seminar course for the Career Development Programme for International Students.

“Most often overseas students want to serve as a bridge between Japan and their home countries. But they also want to be given responsibilities early on and a clear career trajectory.” Companies are understanding the need to adjust traditional management methods to attract and maintain foreign graduates, he says.

Matsuyama castle’s keep, perched up on a hill in the middle of Matsuyama City, offers a lordly panorama of the verdant islands in the Seto Inland Sea and the rugged mountains of Shikoku.
Along with the landmark castle, Matsuyama is renowned for one of Japan’s most famous public bathhouses.
Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, is housed in a century-old wooden structure to which more than a million people come to soak annually.
Matsuyama is also the city of literature: the setting for one of Japan’s most famous classic novels by Natsume Soseki – “Botchan” – and the birthplace of modern haiku. Hosting international haiku contests, the city is now a mecca drawing enthusiasts from around the world, including Herman Van Rompuy, poet and former president of the European Council.
With its mild winters, the surrounding prefecture of Ehime is one of Japan’s top citrus producers (represented by the prefecture’s mascot “Mican” – an adorable dog shaped like a mikan orange with leaf ears and a flower tail).
Ehime is also part of the ancient Ohenro pilgrimage route connecting 88 temples through Shikoku. More recently, cyclists have also been making pilgrimages to Japan’s most famous cycling route - the Shimanami Kaido, a stunning 70km route on bridges and islands linking Shikoku to the mainland.

Pursuing a career in one’s adopted hometown

One of the beneficiaries of this programme is Andi Patiware Metaragakusuma.

After five and a half years at Ehime University in Matsuyama City, Kusuma had acquired Japanese language and business skills, a PhD in rural development, as well as a love of the region.

“Having been given a scholarship from the Japanese government for my studies here, I wanted to give back to Japan,” says Kusuma. “And I wanted to work in Matsuyama, a city I have grown to love.”

So, when she heard of a potential job at a local engineering company, she was overjoyed. But as the first foreigner joining Fujiken Engineering, a traditional company specialising in industrial plant construction and maintenance, she had some concerns.

Would she be able to balance raising her two children while working full-time? Would she be given time for her daily prayers during the workday?

Andi speaking at a seminar in Ehime University and at her workplace. Andi speaking at a seminar in Ehime University and at her workplace. Kusuma participating in career development and education training at Ehime University and working with her colleagues at Fujiken Engineering.

“During my job interview, Fujiken Engineering was very understanding about my concerns. Since coming here, I have been able to take daily breaks for my prayers and balance my role as a mother and a full-time employee,” says Kusuma.

Likewise, Kusuma’s colleagues were not without worries. Would she be able to adapt to the company customs? Some wondered if they could properly communicate without after-work drinking sessions, a vital part of their work culture.

Such worries were unfounded. Kusuma soon became popular among her colleagues for her cheerfulness, work-ethic, and ability to eat the hottest of curries.

“Kusuma is so warm and positive; but of course, also very capable in handling her responsibilities,” says SHIRAISHI Masao, her boss and head of the general affairs division at the company. “We have all become much more positive about the idea of welcoming foreigners into our company.”

Currently, Kusuma is responsible for a project to ready the company to accept Indonesian trainees as well as to act as a liaison with a joint venture the company established with an Indonesian industrial plant construction and maintenance company. She is expected to play an increasingly central role in the company’s overseas expansion.

The prefectural capital, Kumamoto City, has thrived under the protection of a gorgeous, imposing castle built first in 1601 and carefully reconstructed over the centuries.
Having been damaged by an earthquake four years ago, parts of the castle are under renovation, but it is still open for visitors to enjoy its tranquil surroundings and breathtaking views.
Known as the “land of fire”, Kumamoto Prefecture prides itself on Mount Aso, its ancient caldera which is one of the world’s largest with a 25km diameter. As the prefecture’s promotion video title claims, Kumamoto is all “Fired Up” to welcome the world.
As Japan’s sixth largest agricultural prefecture, Kumamoto is known for its fresh produce.
It is one of the country’s largest producers of aubergines and watermelons,
and a popular destination for fresh seafood, beef and horse meat.

Internationalising the mindset, and image, of local companies

In the head office of a food company in Kumamoto in southern Japan, a European with a striking smile sits front and centre at the reception desk. Surprised visitors are reassured when greeted by her polite manner and perfect Japanese, tinged with a local lilt. This is Paulina Maria Magrzyk, a young Polish woman hired as the first foreigner ever by this company only two years ago.

“Paulina really stood out when she came to our company recruitment session,” says TAKAMOTO Hiroya, her boss in the general affairs division at Hirai Holdings. The company has a chain of some 140 stores selling bentos – lunch boxes filled with rice, fish, pickles and other delicacies sold at several hundred yen.

Discovering Japan through anime and having studied its literature at Warsaw, Paulina had always wanted to immerse herself in Japan. After a year as an exchange student at Kumamoto University, she fell in love with life in the castle town surrounded by a region famed for its produce and volcanoes. Returning on a work holiday visa, she came across an employment ad for a company whose bento boxes she enjoyed as a student.

“Though we were at first hesitant about hiring her, we were impressed by her fluent Japanese and passion to pursue a career with us. Two years on, she has become an invaluable asset to the company”, says Takamoto.

Paulina studying at Kumamoto University and at her workplace. Paulina studying at Kumamoto University and at her workplace. Paulina studying at Kumamoto University and at her workplace.

As part of the human resources team, Paulina’s role is to help Vietnamese trainees joining the company to settle in Kumamoto. She has also been participating in company recruitment sessions, where her presence draws interest from Japanese job-seeking graduates who see Hirai in a new light, as not just a local bento maker but as an international company offering a potentially global career.

Like many companies in rural areas across Japan, the bento maker is challenged to attract local Japanese graduates. The rate of graduates from universities in Kumamoto Prefecture who find employment locally is at 40 per cent, the rest head to larger companies in major cities like Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo, according to the prefectural division for commerce, tourism and labour.

The positive experience with Paulina has given Hirai confidence to further diversify its staff. Last year it recruited a Vietnamese woman and has been actively looking for foreigners to help in their operations with their stores frequented by ever more inbound tourists to the region.

Raising a family like the Japanese

Another vital point in positive internationalisation is the support available to foreigners in their daily lives.

Like many municipalities, the Matsuyama and Kumamoto city offices offer multilingual translation and one-stop advisory services, Japanese language courses, and host events to help foreigners adjust and integrate into their communities. A range of NPOs and volunteer organisations provides support for foreign students and residents, while universities provide orientations and help students, for example, find apartments and open bank accounts.

One professor at Ehime University has even attended the childbirths of several students, earning her the nickname of the “mother of foreign students”.

Both Kusuma and Paulina see a future raising a family in Japan.

Kusuma is particularly happy with her son’s public elementary school not only for the quality of the education, but also in teaching him good habits and “character-building”. She spends weekends taking her two children to public spaces, the zoo, and the mall, if they are not busy with school-related activities. “Having been asked to participate in PTA activities and joining the parents’ SNS group, I feel very accepted into the community,” says Kusuma.

As for Paulina, she was quick to embrace the Japanese lifestyle.

As an avid cook, she often makes miso soup with fish stock from scratch – a rare and almost forgotten skill. At the canteen, she usually brings in her own bento lunches, but one time brought in Polish pierogi dumplings to share to the delight of her colleagues. And they all enjoy hearing her speak in Kumamoto dialect and phrases.

“I feel like the company has taken me in like a family,” says Paulina, who also recently married a local. “My ideal future is to have three children and raise them in Kumamoto.”