The Noto Peninsula, battered by a strong earthquake on New Year's Day, is bracing for another blow as many of the foreign technical interns that it has relied on to support its industries contemplate leaving due to a lack of support.

With reconstruction efforts proceeding slowly and water supply still disrupted in some areas four months after the magnitude-7.6 quake struck, a steady trickle of interns, most of whom come from Vietnam and Indonesia, have returned home.

Photo, taken on March 24, 2024, in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, shows houses that collapsed after a massive earthquake on New Year's Day. (Kyodo)

A fisheries cooperative in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, one of the hardest hit areas in the disaster, said three of its some 20 Indonesian technical interns recently left the country, while two others are seeking to find a job outside the affected region.

"It really affects our business as we were not expecting them to drop out," an official at the cooperative said, noting they have provided a valuable supplement to the workforce in a depopulated and aging community. The interns had feared for their lives during the quake, which claimed the lives of over 240 people, due to the severe damage sustained by the house they lived in, he said.

Although they went to stay in evacuation centers, they found it difficult to remain due to the language barrier, with some of them spending a night on a nearby mountain huddling around an open fire in the dead of winter, the official said.

They later moved to a dormitory run by the cooperative but infrastructure has not fully recovered, with no prospect in sight of restoring the water supply as of late April, the official said.

The cooperative has started offering assistance in collaboration with local interpreters and aid groups in an effort to convince them to stay, but those who had decided to leave remained firm in their intention, he said.

"We talked with them but eventually decided that we can't force them to stay," the official said.

Photo, taken on March 22, 2024, in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, shows a fishing boat docked near a local fisheries cooperative. (Kyodo)

Many local businesses in fields ranging from fisheries and sewing to food processing operations in Noto rely on workers provided under the foreign trainee program, which was introduced in 1993 as a way of transferring skills to developing countries.

As of the end of December, there were about 5,100 interns in Ishikawa. But post-quake hardships have not been the only factor behind the drop in their number. The delays that some companies have experienced in restarting operations have also played a part.

Of about 860 employers accepting interns in the prefecture, 53 said it was difficult to continue their trainee program as of the end of January, with half of them now exploring the possibility of resuming it, according to the Organization for Technical Intern Training, an entity that oversees the program.

Lien Kaji, a Vietnamese interpreter who is offering advice to technical interns in the Noto region, said the number of technical interns from Vietnam she knows has dwindled to one-third of the figure before the disaster, noting that earthquakes are rarely experienced in their home country.

But some have also chosen to leave Japan because they could not get responses from their employers about when their operations would resume, she said.

"Some of them returned home with the intention of coming back, but they still haven't received any response from their companies," she said.

Photo, taken on March 24, 2024, in Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture, shows a house severely damaged by a massive earthquake on New Year's Day.(Kyodo)

To support interns who found themselves unable to work, the Japanese government started in January to allow them to move to different workplaces for three months outside their designated field.

But permission was granted to only 57 interns as of April 19, although some 15,000 in Ishikawa and neighboring municipalities were eligible for the special measure, according to the Immigration Services Agency, as many were apparently not informed, their support groups said.

It is very difficult for interns to change jobs under the current trainee program, as they are basically prohibited from changing workplaces unless there are compelling reasons such as human rights abuses or employers going bankrupt.

The government has decided to replace the controversial program, which has been criticized as a cover for importing low-cost labor, and is now seeking a legal change to allow trainees to transfer jobs after working one year in principle.

But the move to make the system more flexible could cause an outflow of workers from rural areas whose infrastructure and economies are more vulnerable to natural disasters and which struggle to offer attractive job opportunities, experts say.

Photo, taken on March 22, 2024, in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, shows Indonesian technical intern Muhammad Arismon (C), who works at a local fisheries cooperative, and his colleagues. (Kyodo)

Muhammad Arismon, a 23-year-old Indonesian technical intern at a fisheries cooperative in the town of Noto, says he feels "lucky" to be still employed after the massive quake and grateful to his employer, but would appreciate more flexibility in the system.

"There could be more freedom to change jobs," he said.

"Employers will no longer be able to tie interns to their place by law," said Kazuo Yamada, head of YOU-I, a nonprofit organization supporting foreign residents in the Noto region.

That means, he said, businesses in depopulated areas will need to find a way to appeal to technical interns.

With such firms mostly unable to offer competitive pay, they will have to persuade interns of the attractiveness of both their workplaces and localities, he said.

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