U.S.-China trade tensions affecting foreign nationals in small Japanese city

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Trade tensions between the United States and China are casting a shadow over the livelihoods of foreign nationals living in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, with dwindling employment opportunities and linguistic barriers forcing them to pack up and leave the western Japan city.

In 2018, the prefecture’s foreign population experienced the highest growth rate in Japan, with around half of them living in Izumo. But in the six months from May 2019, when the number stood at 4,950, the city’s foreign population fell by more than 400.

The population drop was triggered by the prolonged U.S.-China trade friction and the ensuing global economic downturn, which caused a factory of an affiliate of a major electronic parts manufacturer to slow production. The resulting job cuts and decreases in the number of working days severely affected Brazilians of Japanese descent, forcing around 530 of them to leave the city.

Third-generation Japanese Brazilian Fabio Higashi, 36, said his life plans have changed considerably since his dispatch worker contract was terminated at the end of November. He had been working at the same factory for five years, with his contract renewed every two months.

Higashi’s two children, whom he brought to Japan from his home country, now have Japanese friends who come over to play at their home. He is currently looking for another job.

“There were few opportunities to speak Japanese at the factory,” he said. “From now on, I want to study the language while working in Japanese society.”

The Izumo government is seeking to slow its population decline, setting a target population for 2060 of 150,000, or 20,000 lower than the current number.

The city sees foreign nationals as key to achieving the target, with Mayor Hideto Nagaoka calling them “a new driving force for the region.” It has introduced programs such as Japanese classes and support for work in agriculture to encourage foreign nationals to reside in the city.

But demand for foreign laborers has been stagnant due to worries over the language barrier and insufficient skills, although many small companies in the city are struggling with manpower shortages. The city plans to resolve the issue by hosting briefing sessions to match foreign workers with companies.

“It is difficult for unskilled foreign workers to get re-employed due to difficulties in acquiring skills,” said Eiji Takeuchi, researcher at the Japan Finance Corporation Research Institute.

“Government administrators and companies struggling with labor shortages should support (foreign laborers) by working together to give technical guidance and setting a path to employment after the completion of the training,” he added.