A Tokyo bus operator has declared its desire to hire foreign drivers, hoping the move will prompt Japan to open up the job to people from abroad as the country grapples with a growing labor shortage in the public transport sector.

Tokyu Bus Corp. President Takashi Furukawa wants to set a precedent for fellow bus operators that are in desperate need of drivers, drawing on his experience working in Vietnam where he once helped introduce Japanese know-how in running transportation services.

Tokyu Bus Corp. President Takashi Furukawa speaks during an interview in Tokyo on Dec. 21, 2023. (Kyodo)

Furukawa acknowledges a host of challenges may lie ahead before the day finally comes when a foreign national can drive a bus for his roughly 2,000-employee company. It may not be an easy road but it's worth paving, he said.

"We want to do everything at our disposal. Hiring foreign drivers is one of them," Furukawa said in a recent interview. "It's obvious that the shortage of drivers will become even more severe. The plan is to start off with a few drivers from overseas."

"Safe driving comes before anything else. But bus drivers should be able to respond to emergency situations, and hospitality or the ability to communicate with customers, with smiles, is also required of them," Furukawa said.

Long known for its strict immigration policy, Japan has been gradually opening its doors to foreign workers in recent years. In 2019, it begun to accept workers with specialized skills in such sectors as nursing care. Those workers can stay in Japan for up to five years, and for an unlimited period if their status is upgraded.

The number of sectors covered by the specialized skilled worker status has since increased to 12 and the government is considering adding bus, taxi and truck drivers to the list.

The scheduled introduction in April of a cap on overtime worked by drivers to 960 hours a year has already raised concern that the logistics and transportation sectors will see more acute labor shortages.

The so-called "2024 problem" comes as higher fuel and other costs have dealt a blow to the transportation industry after the COVID-19 pandemic depressed passenger demand.

The Nihon Bus Association estimates that the sector will suffer a shortage of around 36,000 drivers in fiscal 2030, partly because of workforce aging. The figure is equivalent to about a third of the 110,000 drivers in 2023.

Even if Japan decides to allow bus operators to hire foreign drivers, getting a Class 2 driver's license required for commercial vehicles is a high hurdle, even for Japanese people. Still, plans are in the works to offer license tests in 20 languages, not just Japanese.

While more needs to be done, promoting diversity has been one of the priority areas for Tokyu Bus, mainly operating in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, according to Furukawa. It now has two Vietnamese mechanics while female drivers account for around 3 percent of the total.

"When female drivers debuted, there were people who said, 'I can't ride a bus with a woman driver.' But it's now a thing of the past," he said. "What matters is how we get off to a start because we need to make sure our customers feel foreign drivers are as good as Japanese drivers."

A survey by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry covering some 3,100 Japanese small and midsize firms showed more than half saw the need for Japan to accept foreign workers. The industry body raised the alarm that the country is losing its appeal as a magnet for foreign workers.

Mathias Cormann, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said Japan, which ranks relatively low among OECD members in the quality of opportunities for foreign workers, needs them "more than others" to maintain its growth momentum.

"Offering long-term residency to workers and their families, improving access to education, and preventing discrimination would make Japan more competitive in attracting highly skilled foreign workers," he said at a recent press conference.

Executives in the transportation industry say the appeal of driving as a profession also needs to be raised, given that long hours and low pay are often associated with the job. A weaker yen also makes Japan a less attractive place to work.

Tokyu Bus is set to go ahead with a 10-yen fare hike from March -- the first increase since 1997 excluding when the consumption tax was raised -- partly to improve the benefits for its employees. If foreign drivers join the company, Furukawa said he will make sure they will receive the same benefits as Japanese.

"We need to wake up to the fact that many foreign workers are already crucial in sustaining our daily life. And my hope is to see Japanese society change in a way that people are accustomed to bus, taxi and truck drivers coming from different parts of the world," Furukawa said.

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