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Increase in Foreign Staff in Japanese Ski Towns

May 12, 2017

The decreasing and aging Japanese population looms over all of us. Recently on a trip to Hakodate, a lovely port city in the south of Hokkaido, I was shocked to hear the forecast for the rapid population decrease. Currently 260,000 people, Hakodate is projected to decrease to 200,000 in just 10 years! Famously reluctant to increase immigration, how can Japan handle this pending crunch?

One of the very few bright lights appears to be in winter resorts, where Jappow draws young staff from around the globe, to help meet staffing needs as international tourism numbers are peaking. The numbers below show an increase in foreign residents in Tomamu, Furano, Hakuba, Nozawa, and Yuzawa, with Niseko leading the charge. Even with the influx, all of these resort towns are still experiencing a net loss in population (also, it is unclear how many of these "residents" are actually year round).

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Often guests will decry a resort for becoming "too foreign", but I can tell you that getting young Japanese staff to come work in the countryside is an annual challenge. Urbanization continues, and there seems to be an inherent bias against the countryside. Finding bilingual Japanese staff with a professional certification is an even bigger challenge, since most feel the career path in the city is more guaranteed.

Another trend I have noticed is the loss of exposure to adventure sports in pop culture. When I moved to Japan 20 years ago, TV was populated with commercials featuring dramatic ski & snowboarding backdrops, people kayaking, bungee jumping, and mountain climbing. These days adventure is notably lacking in ads and commercials, and I would wager this is reflected in the lower number of young Japanese taking to the outdoors.

Without question, staffing will be the biggest challenge facing Niseko and other resorts as we move forward. Yet, I feel Niseko is a bright light that hopefully will draw talented young Japanese back to the countryside. This is an incredibly cosmopolitan area, and many of the Japanese living here are bilingual and very international in outlook, having travelled extensively overseas or gone to school in foreign countries.

Add to the mix the foreign residents who come from all around the world, and you have a very dynamic and vibrant community. With a little more exposure, hopefully more young, urban Japanese will recognize that resort towns can offer them an international experience within their own country, combined with a lifestyle that would make city residents very envious.

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