What are “Technical Interns” or “Specified Skilled Workers”?

If you are searching about working visa for Japan online, then you might have already stumbled upon the term “Technical Intern” or “Specified Skilled Worker/Specific Skills”. But you might say, I thought Japan is not very big on internships? And what even is a “specified” skilled worker?

Well, both of these terms are products of Japanese being a very different language to English, making translations wonky at the best of times and incomprehensible at others. Another reason for the confusing nomenclature is the Japanese government’s unwillingness to be upfront about things.

Japan has a labour shortage, as you may be aware. Especially manual labour and other low-qualified positions become harder and harder to fill, in a country where the birthrate keeps declining but education standards keep going up. University graduates rarely want to work in an assembly line at a factory after all. But societal pressure is high to attend University, with people who did not go to a famous university often being considered failures before they even start working. So, how to fix the labour shortage?

Looking at other countries, importing cheap labour from poorer countries has been the capitalist go-to solution for many years. If you take in workers from a poorer nation than your own, they will not complain about low pay, or monotonous work with little advancement opportunities, because it will most likely still pay better than work in their home country. But the Japanese government has always been pretty conservative and traditionalist, so outright admitting there is a problem in glorious Nippon and accepting the help of migrant workers was out of the question. Thus the “Technical Intern” (技能実習生) scheme was born. Under the guise of benevolently volunteering to train people from poorer countries in advanced and futuristic Japanese production methods, workers from countries in south-east Asia were led into the country and effectively used as the cheap labour that Japan desperately needed. Unfortunately, abuse was and still is, rife within this system. Sending organizations charging prospective interns outrageous fees for placement in Japan, unpaid overtime due to being classified as “interns”, power and sexual harassment, confiscating of passports and other ID, basically trapping the interns in Japan, the list goes on and on. For some reason, the program is still alive and kicking, however.

Technical Interns not really fulfilling their purpose

Apart from its other failings, the “Technical Intern” program also failed to fulfil its original purpose: easing the labour shortage. The government reacted to this in 2019, creating a new visa category called “Specific Skills” (特定技能), this time also trying to prevent the aforementioned abuse from occurring, by putting in legal stipulations that workers have to be treated in the same way as Japanese employees. Working visa for Japan are manifold and very specific, the country has always been afraid to create a blanket “working visa”. So, they took that same approach with the “Specific Skill” visa, which gets its name from being only applicable for work in 14 “specific” industries, that the government identified as being especially in need of more labourers, and requiring you to have some “skill” in that area. The idea with this one is, that you would study Japanese and a “skill”, for example, farming, in your home country, pass the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) N4, as well as a test for your chosen skill, and then come to Japan and use your acquired knowledge to work there for up to five years, before returning to your home country again. Again, no blanket work permission. Another caveat is, that the industries for which you can take tests, vary widely from country to country, in some countries you will only be able to take tests for farming for example, while others only provide tests for nursing. Further, while technically everyone is eligible for a “Specific Skills” visa, tests are only available in Asian countries at the moment. You can take tests for all industries in Japan, but there is a cap for applications, and the test will be held in Japanese, meaning you will most likely need a higher Japanese proficiency than N4 to pass.

To sum it up, I cannot recommend anyone to ever come to Japan with the “Technical Intern” program. While there might be plenty of perfectly normal companies employing Interns to combat labour shortage, the chance of hitting a bad apple and having a really bad experience is just too high. The “Specific Skill” visa, on the other hand, has only been around for a bit more than a year at this point, so it is hard to say where it will go from here. First impressions are, that not many people have taken advantage of the program, in part due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but also due to a confusing application process and how hard it is to acquire the necessary certifications to be eligible for the visa. It remains to be seen, how Japan will react to and try to combat the deepening crisis that is the labour shortage from here on out.