Despite being very few in number, some foreign-born firefighters are employed in Japan, but their nationality is proving a conundrum due to opaque restrictions placed on what duties non-Japanese public servants can carry out.
The ambiguous rules have left some of these firefighters and the local governments that hired them -- some in depopulated rural areas -- confused about how their much-needed abilities can be utilized.
A nationwide tally compiled by the Internal Affairs Ministry's Fire and Disaster Management Agency showed that there were 479 foreign fire brigade members working in Japan in 2023, a 1.8-fold jump from the 269 on the job in 2020 when the agency first collected data. Municipality-specific data are not disclosed.
The firefighters are classed as part-time, special-position local public servants, a job title open to all nationalities who live in Japan.
Despite being a godsend for communities with a declining working population, the lack of clarity over what duties they can perform during fire and disaster emergencies is proving a hurdle.
Many municipalities are frustrated with the lack of coherent rules or legal clarity on the matter and are puzzled by the central government's guidelines that state "Japanese nationality is required for the exercise of public authority."
The guidelines, issued in 1953 by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, are considered a restricting factor on foreign firefighters. But the ambiguity means each municipality must make an individual judgment on what activities amount to them exercising "public authority."
"There have been cases where we have been confused because of the restriction and have refused to hire foreign residents in our fire brigades," one municipal official in western Japan said.
Generally, public authority is required to establish fire zones, where firefighters can order people to evacuate dangerous areas and take emergency measures such as destroying property to prevent the spread of fire or to save human lives.
Activities that do not require public authority include leading evacuees to safety, language interpretation at shelters and communications as part of disaster readiness activities.
Acknowledging an urgent need for clarity, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency is working to create a set of new guidelines with a plan to present it to municipalities across Japan by the end of March 2025.
One official in charge admitted the agency is preparing only "guidelines" rather than establishing exactly what foreign firefighters can and cannot do, implying that the final decision on whether or not a foreign national is eligible to perform all duties will continue to be left to local governments.
Fundamental problems might not be solved, but experts say the new guidelines will certainly be easier to understand and are expected to have the effect of encouraging local governments that have been hesitant to employ foreign nationals.
Even so, some fear the agency's move for clarification could have unintended effects, with some places that already allow foreigners to perform full duties possibly forced to review their current policies and introduce restrictions.
"With the number of firefighters decreasing here, they are very valuable to us," said an official in the town of Misato in the northeastern prefecture of Miyagi, mentioning the fact that no particular restrictions are placed on the one foreign firefighter employed there.
On the other hand, Mitsue, a village in Nara Prefecture, western Japan, where approximately 60 percent of the population is 65 or older, hired a foreign firefighter on the condition the person could not engage in actual firefighting.
"It is very difficult for a small village like ours in which one person is unable to engage in the same activities as the rest of the brigade," a Mitsue firefighting official said.
Ichizo Goto, a former adjunct lecturer at Tohoku Fukushi University who has been studying fire brigades for more than 40 years, believes Japan must scrap its outdated policy.
"The social structure has changed and it is an anachronism to distinguish activities on the basis of foreign nationality," Goto said.
"We should remove restrictions on activities in a way that follows the present situation so that foreigners who wish to join fire brigades and local governments alike can take on this issue with a positive approach," he said.