Tokyo opens chairs for foreign hairdressers to show off their skills

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Liu Yuting will soon embark on the career path sheWhat I had dreamed of for seven years: a hairdresser in Japan.

“I believe the art of Japanese hairdressing can make customers look cute and smile,” said the 28-year-old, who will start working at a beauty salon in the capital in November.

A native of China’s Jiangsu province, Liu wouldn’t have been able to work in Japan if Tokyo hadn’t become the first municipality in the country to be designated a “national strategic special zone” for non-Japanese hairdressers.

In Japan, foreign nationals have long faced the paradox of being eligible to obtain a license for beauticians, dieticians and other professions, but not being able to find employment there because they cannot acquire a status of residence allowing them to take up relevant jobs.

From October, however, they are allowed to work as hairdressers in Tokyo, the testing ground for the new deregulation measure, for up to five years if they meet certain conditions, such as fluency in Japanese.

Liu graduated this spring from Hollywood University of Beauty & Fashion, a vocational school in Tokyo’s Minato district, and earned a license as a beautician.

A big lover of Japanese fashion, Liu visited a beauty salon in Tokyo’s trendy Minami-Aoyama district during her first trip to Japan in 2015.

She used gestures to request a hairstyle with straight bangs. The new hairstyle made her more confident in herself.

“I was surprised by the way they styled my hair in a natural style that looked good on me,” she said in clearly pronounced Japanese.

She decided to learn Japanese hairdressing techniques to make others happy.

After giving up a well-paying job at a railroad company, Liu returned to Tokyo three years later, attended a Japanese language school, and went to vocational school.

A beautician license can be obtained by attending a training institution designated by a prefectural government and passing a national examination. The eligibility requirements do not contain any provisions on nationality.

OTHER JOBS STILL OUT OF REACH

The certificate of a Japanese dietitian license that a South Korean woman obtained after studying in Japan (provided by the woman)

Despite the breakthrough in the hairdressing industry in Tokyo, the doors remain closed for other vocations, such as nutritionists, across the country.

A 24-year-old South Korean left Japan three years ago after attending Hattori Nutrition College, a vocational school in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, for two years and earning a license as a dietitian.

“Why am I not allowed to work here after studying as a Japanese government-sponsored student?” she wondered at the time.

The woman is now studying Japanese at a university of foreign studies in South Korea to put her language skills to good use.

“I was told that nutritionists were scarce in hospitals and nursing homes in Japan,” she said. “Isn’t it a problem for Japan that non-Japanese people who have acquired specialized knowledge are not allowed to work in the country?

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, 20-30 students from China, South Korea and Taiwan studied at Hattori Nutrition College each year.

Obtaining a diploma from the school entitles them to a dietitian license but youunable to work in Japan, they returned to their home countries.

“It’s such a waste because they’re learning advanced knowledge and skills,” a school representative said.

The official expressed hope that lifting the work ban for non-Japanese hairdressers in Tokyo will be followed by similar deregulation for nutritionists.

The same goes for alternative healing professionals, such as acupuncturists, moxibustion practitioners, and bonesetters officially known as “judo therapists.”

Several international students are enrolled each year at Japan Judo Therapy, Acupuncture & Moxibustion Therapy College, a vocational school in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

“We want foreign students who have obtained licenses to work, but we can’t do anything about it because it’s a system put in place by the government,” a school representative said.

TOKYO IN TREND?

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A Taiwanese woman makes sweets at Hattori Nutrition College, a vocational school in Tokyo’s Shibuya district on September 30. She intends to acquire a resident status that allows her to work in the restaurant business since she cannot work as a nutritionist in Japan. (Shin Kasahara)

Kiyoto Tanno, a professor of labor sociology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, endorses the government’s decision to designate Tokyo as a special zone for non-Japanese hairdressers.

“It’s a reasonable system to allow non-Japanese with specialized skills to work only in Tokyo to begin with,” said Tanno, who is familiar with the issue of non-Japanese workers. “While accepting foreigners with caution, the government may expand the system if the special zone is successful in the capital.”

He said a backlash would be inevitable if foreigners took jobs from Japanese.

About 550,000 non-Japanese live in Tokyo, up 40% from 10 years earlier. By country of origin, the Chinese represent the largest segment with 39%, followed by South Koreans (15%), Vietnamese (7%) and Filipinos (6%).

The hairdressing industry hopes the measure could spur growth.

Kazuhisa Shindo, personnel and general affairs manager at Taya Co., which operates the Taya chain of beauty salons based in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, said having non-Japanese hairdressers on the payroll would be useful both to meet the demand of incoming visitors and in the construction of support points to set up abroad.

Japan’s hairstyling prowess has attracted a lot of attention around the world, he said.

“Non-Japanese hairstylists could work for us in their home countries when we venture overseas,” Shindo said. “We could work with them to practice the Japanese art of hairdressing around the world.”

Three main types of residence status are available to non-Japanese workers: personnel in “specialized and technical fields,” such as doctors and researchers; workers in industries that are sorely understaffed, such as food and beverage manufacturing, agriculture and nursing; and technical trainees.

Unless foreign nationals fall into one of these categories, they are not entitled to residency status even if they obtain a professional license.

Hairdressers, nutritionists and other professions “have not been considered to fall under the category of ‘specialized and technical fields,'” an official with the Immigration Services Agency said.

Tanno said the residency status categories for non-Japanese workers covered highly skilled jobs; “professions with cultural backgrounds that the Japanese cannot fulfill”, such as foreign chefs; and jobs in understaffed industries, such as nursing.

“The main principle of government policy is that jobs should not be taken away from the Japanese,” he said.

He added that the government had apparently expected that foreigners who are not subject to any employment restrictions, such as permanent residents and spouses of Japanese nationals, would want to obtain a license and work as hairdressers, nutritionists and other professionals.

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