Okinawa – Part Three: People, Jobs

Okinawa – Part Three: People, Jobs

While Okinawa, with its special culture and friendly people is a great place to visit, you have to remember that apart from the call centers, it is primarily a tourism and agriculture-fisheries based economy. This makes it tough to get a decent job, and as if the local unemployment rate of 7.6% (13.2% for youths) wasn’t enough, the prefecture also has to deal with young people from Tokyo looking to opt out for a while, some sleeping rough on the beaches and taking temporary jobs to stay fed.

So if you’re not a fisherman or farmer, your options are with the 3 main employment sectors on the island: tourism as a bilingual guide or hospitality worker, supporting the US bases as a blue collar worker, or in one of the call center operations. Not much of a choice, I agree.

There appear to be two ways for foreigners to find jobs, apart from the old fashioned way of simply picking a company and selling your services to them. These are the Okinawa Hello Work Office, and the Help Wanted classifieds in the sole local English-language newspaper Japan Update.

As I mentioned last week, I paid a visit to the Okinawa Hello Work office in Naha New Urban Center back in October. They’re located just a stone’s throw from Transcosmos’ spiffy new building at the center of the new technology park going up there. Currently Naha is the center of Okinawa for business, and the Hello Work office is the center of activity for people trying to find work in Naha. Like most other Hello Work offices around the nation, it is an expansive place, with a phalanx of PC terminals for people to search jobs from after going through the registration process.

I had an interview with one of the senior managers, and asked him about the availability of bilingual Japanese and foreigners and/or those candidates with some technology skills only. His ears perked up when I mentioned foreigners, because obviously there is a problem placing them. It seems that while most non-Japanese in the system are married to local Okinawa spouses and thus are able to integrate into the island’s social web, they naturally initially struggle with the language and/or culture and thus are not popular with local employers.

The manager did a test run on the system, and found 62 Japanese speaking technical people (of all levels) looking for work, both foreign and Japanese. I found this quite impressive and realized it may not be that hard to find good people. From what I can tell, Hello Work is a clearinghouse for job seekers and if you’re in Okinawa, you should definitely register with them.

The local English-language newspaper, the Japan Update (http://www.japanupdate.com/), reflects the fact that the Okinawa economy is still tightly tied to the US bases. There are 13 bases supporting approximately 150,000 US armed forces personnel. This means that about 12% of all the people living in Okinawa are non-Japanese. Of course, the bases provide most of the services the military families need, however, there are enough local dependents and English-speaking vendors that there is a secondary economy of jobs supporting this concentration of foreigners.

Checking this week’s Japan Update for example, we found jobs for a Naval Hospital Nurse, a Kindergarten teacher, construction workers, English teachers, civil/mechanical/electrical engineers, translators, electricians, and even a bilingual secretary. On this last position, the salary for a 9-to-5 position was US1,100/month, about JPY130,000. A good reminder that jobs certainly do not pay what they do in Tokyo.

The last sector is IT. According to an October 2006 article in the Daily Yomiuri, there are 105 IT companies active in Okinawa. Of these, 37 are running call centers – Transcosmos being the most visible, 22 are providing other phone-based or online support, 21 are software developers, and 16 are producing online web content. While most of these companies are looking for Japanese staff, nevertheless, if you are a bilingual engineer I believe that you would not find it difficult to find a position supporting call center infrastructure, data center infrastructure, network and security infrastructure, doing software development, or even designing web sites. However, you are probably not going to find these jobs advertised and will need to contact each company one-by-one until you find someone who is interested.

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