A garlic and apple farm in northeastern Japan recognizes that its survival depends largely on finding the next generation of workers to replace the aging local population.
This is why Aomori Japan Farm Co. is keen on training a group of Vietnamese students -- currently working there as interns -- to use their experience as a stepping stone to eventually work full-time on the farm once they have completed their studies at Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry in Vietnam.
"I applied for the internship in Japan because I heard that agriculture is very developed (here)," said Phan Thi Nhu Y, a fourth-year student at the university. "I can experience all of the processes of making garlic, from planting to harvesting," she said.
Y, 22, Dao Thi Huyen, 21, Hoang Thi Diem Lien, 22, and Le Thi Anh Ngoc, 22, will each complete a one-year internship at the farm in Aomori Prefecture in July.
(L-R) Hoang Thi Diem Lien, Le Thi Anh Ngoc, Dao Thi Huyen, Phan Thi Nhu Y)
In recent interviews, buoyed by the relatively high wages and experiences of Japanese culture, they all said they hope to obtain working visas that would allow them to return to the farm after graduating.
The four female students are paid around 132,000 yen ($1,100) each a month, with some 27,000 yen deducted for rent, and work five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
While they rent a pair of two-bedroom flats, the four sleep in one flat on three futon mattresses since they enjoy cooking, shopping and spending time together even outside of work, they said.
"I would not have applied if only one student visa (was) sent. I am sad that I have to leave here this coming July," said Huyen. "I am sending home some of the money I receive but most of it I am saving because I want to come back to Japan."
It is a medium-term win-win in efforts to address the acute shortage of labor, says the farm's senior managing director Hirofumi Ogawa, who also hopes the students return to help with the seemingly endless workload, next time with a better command of Japanese.
"One of the most worrying things is my Japanese skills," said Lien. "I try to study after work and during days off."
The farm, established in 2016, has around 13 hectares of farmland to grow apples, garlic and pears in Aomori's Gonohe area but only a dozen employees. Ogawa said recruiting foreign workers seems the logical choice, although he has steered clear of hiring through Japan's controversial technical intern program.
"It's another way of recruiting foreign workers. We first thought of taking in technical interns but I wasn't sure about the whole system, with rumors that workers are forced to bear massive debts before being sent away," Ogawa said, referring to technical intern trainees from developing countries that come to Japan.
"I also want to know what kind of person is coming to work beforehand. I heard that with technical interns, the mismatch between the employees and employers is a big issue," he added.
Ogawa received an unexpected phone call from a young woman at a technical intern dispatch agency in Vietnam in October 2017, asking if he would accept interns at the farm. "I hadn't even advertised for staff but somehow she found out about us," Ogawa said.
(Phan Thi Nhu Y (L) speaks about her experience working as an intern at the farm)
Ogawa declined to accept technical interns but said he was looking for students who may eventually come back to work. The Vietnamese woman then helped him contact another Japan-based Vietnamese who eventually linked him up with the students from Hue who were looking to study agriculture in Japan.
Ogawa traveled to Vietnam to interview the students himself in March 2018. Unfortunately, the students could only travel to Japan in August, past the busy apple picking season, he said.
"I have heard that recruiters and brokers charging trainees exorbitant fees is a common business practice in Vietnam," he said.
The students at Aomori Japan Farm also said they have heard of negative stories associated with technical interns working in Japan, with reported abuses including low and unpaid wages, excessive hours, violence and sexual harassment.
"My mother respected my choice saying that I am already an adult but also told me to be careful since I am a woman," said Huyen. "My friends who went to Japan as technical interns have also told me they are now regretting it."
"I felt safe about coming here because this internship program was introduced by our school, which I trust," she said. The school collects around 300,000 yen as a fee to join the internship, according to Huyen.
"I have met Vietnamese who are here in Aomori as technical interns but compared to them, I feel that I am able to do what I want to do and have been educated for."
The average monthly wage level is said to be seven times higher in Japan compared to Vietnam, which is around 30,000 yen to 40,000 yen, according to brokers.
Ogawa, who taught Japanese for around 12 years in Brazil and has previously worked with student interns, is eager to accommodate the Vietnamese students, from the standpoint that Japanese society needs to take steps to draw foreigners to its labor-starved market.
"Amid the aging population, it is obvious that Japan cannot survive without the help of foreigners," he said.
The number of foreign workers in Japan tripled over a decade to a record-high 1.46 million as of October 2018, up 14.2 percent from a year earlier, marking the 11th straight year of increase, according to data released in January from the labor ministry.
By nationality, Chinese accounted for more than a quarter of the total foreign workforce at 389,117, up 4.5 percent from the previous year, but Vietnamese also registered a jump of 31.9 percent to 316,840.
The figure is almost certain to rise in the years to come as Japan launched a new system in April to ease visa restrictions and accept more foreign workers.
Understanding that the Vietnamese students wish to see more of Japan than just farms, Ogawa took them on a trip to Tokyo for three nights in January. They visited Tokyo Disneyland, the iconic Tokyo Skytree tower, several Diet buildings and shopping districts in Shibuya and Harajuku, among others.
The students were thrilled about their first visit to the capital but particularly enjoyed talking with their compatriots when they dined at a Vietnamese restaurant, Ogawa said.
While excursions paid for by the company are rare occurrences, Ogawa has suggested creating a pooled fund made up of small amounts of money contributed each month to eventually be used for travel. The students seemed to have taken to the idea.
In the future, improving their Japanese language ability will be key to them being promoted and getting higher pay in the event they return to work at the Aomori farm, Ogawa said.
"For now, work here is relatively easy and the students are doing well but if they want to be promoted, such as work as full-time employees, they would need to be able to speak and understand Japanese," he said.