There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people from the small Himalayan nation of Nepal working in Japan over the past decade, owing in part to labor shortages in the service industry caused by the graying of society.
Many in the Nepalese labor force, which had surged 13-fold to 120,000 nationwide in 2022, work as rafting guides, hotel employees, airport staff and other behind-the-scenes workers at bustling holiday destinations. Even so, there are hurdles to expanding their employment and calls for regulatory changes that loosen restrictions.
On a summer afternoon riding through a gorge on the Yoshino River in Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture, rafting guide Milthun Shrestha sings popular Nepali tune Resham Firiri ("Silk Fluttering in the Wind") as he navigates his raft and its Japanese customers down the whitewater rapids on the island of Shikoku.
Shrestha, 33, came to Japan from a suburb of Nepal's capital Kathmandu. He has worked for the Big Smile Rafting tour company in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, since 2018 and gives rafting instructions in Japanese. He is also a whitewater guide in his home country and comes to Japan to work every year during the Himalayan monsoon.
His home in Nepal was damaged by the 2015 Nepal earthquake. "I still have a loan to repay for rebuilding my home. My salary in Japan is five times as much as it is in Nepal," he said.
Roughly 60 percent of Big Smile's employees are Nepalese -- approximately 60 people in total. Company president Akihiko Uyama said the Nepali "culture of respect for elders makes it easy to do business (with them)."
Nepal's gross national income per capita was $1,230 (about 180,000 yen in 2021), or one-30th that of Japan.
There has been a demographic shift caused by a fall in the number of Chinese and South Korean students in Japan with the economic development of those countries, while Nepalese students have rushed to fill the void. After completing their studies in Japan, more and more are finding jobs using their Japanese language skills.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Nepalese comprise the fifth largest group of foreign workers in 2022. "They support Japan's labor shortages" in hotels, convenience stores, factories and restaurants, one human resources broker said.
During the summer vacation season at Narita airport near Tokyo, Nepalese employees can be seen engaged in various jobs, such as providing passenger information and custodial work. They are also involved in the hotel industry which is recovering from the pandemic downturn.
Elina Parajuli, 28, works the reception desk at the Chino Station Hotel in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, a summer resort in central Japan. She was hired two years ago after coming to Sendai from Nepal to study at a Japanese language school in 2017, and also attending a vocational school there. "I fell in love with customer service through my part-time job at a convenience store," Parajuli said.
A dozen of the employees of Ikenotaira Hotel & Resorts, located near Lake Shirakaba in Chino, are Nepalese.
Still, there are challenges to expanding employment. Many Nepalese students are employed part-time, but even if they are highly valued for their work, it is difficult for them to find full-time employment due to bureaucratic barriers.
Yoshiharu Komiyama heads the International Human Resource Network Organization Foundation in Tokyo, which provides scholarships to international students.
"If Nepalese students who can understand Japanese can be utilized more, it will help alleviate the labor shortage," he said, appealing for a loosening of employment restrictions.