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Young Indonesian Crew Important To Japanese Tuna Fishing Industry Indonesia, January 15, 13

Students at the Tegal Public Fishery School

Heri Iswanto accepts that coastal fishing can sometimes be hazardous work, but he says he stuck it out as an apprentice fisherman aboard a Japanese trawler “because I wanted to send money to my parents.”

Heri, from eastern Java, is one of numerous foreign trainees who represent an increasingly important source of manpower for Japan’s fishing industry as the work force ages and fewer young Japanese opt for a life at sea.

But it is dangerous work that can end in disaster, as Heri, 23, learned last September when the trawler he once worked on sank in rough seas after a collision with a cargo ship off Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan.

The boat, Horiei Maru, had five Indonesian trainees, four of whom were rescued. One, a 21-year-old, remains unaccounted for.

Without foreign trainees, many coastal fishing operations in Japan would find it difficult to keep going.

Despite the safety risks, many Indonesians view the program as an opportunity to learn advanced fishing techniques and earn a good pay.

“The job is exacting and sometimes dangerous,” says Heri, who had worked as an apprentice bonito fisherman in Mie Prefecture until November 2010. “But I kept at it because I wanted to send money home.”

Wahyudin, who like many Indonesians uses one name, worked on a bonito fishing boat in Kochi Prefecture until late 2009. Each time he had saved 300,000 yen ($3,351), he sent the money to his parents in central Java.

Wahyudin, 24, made about 90,000 yen a month while he worked in Japan.

He says his struggling parents, who are farmers, repeatedly told him not to follow in their footsteps. “The only way of avoiding it was going to Japan to work,” he says. “So I attended a fisheries school.”

It turns out that fishery schools in Indonesia offer a rich storehouse of apprentices.

Graduates head to Japan after taking Japanese language lessons. They spend three years working in Japan as trainees. Many then return to Indonesia to start their own businesses or find work as merchant seamen aboard ships registered in Singapore and elsewhere.

At the Tegal Public Fishery School in central Java, half of 80 graduates each year leave for Japan after learning the basics of navigation and other required skills. The school offers a Japanese language class for third-year students after hours.

Suharyanto, the school principal, beams when he talks about his students, who he says are vital to the Japanese fishing industry. “In Japan, few young people want to work in tuna fishing boats operating near the coast,” Suharyanto says. “Indonesians are taking up the slack, particularly graduates from this school.”

Fishing fleets sometimes spend a month at sea at a time.

Suharyanto says foreign trainees are better compensated in Japan, compared with working in South Korea and Taiwan.

He also notes that Indonesians from Java are generally serious and obedient, character traits that are welcomed by their Japanese colleagues and superiors.

Yusman, who is 17 and a third-year student at the school, is one of many who aspires to work on a Japanese trawler. “I want to learn advanced fishing techniques in Japan and then return to Indonesia to support the fishing industry,” he says.

Yusman, after hearing stories from other graduates at the school, says he was most struck by the fact that Japanese trawlers use a fish-finder to locate schools of fish.

“It is so cool that fishermen don’t have to rely on their years of experience and the presence of a flock of birds to catch fish,” was the reaction of one student.

Others marvel at the technology that bristles aboard Japanese fishing boats, as well as the materials, such as rods made of fiber, not bamboo, and artificial bait.

Japan began a program for foreign trainees in 1993.

Under the program, organizations and businesses accept people from developing countries in agriculture, fisheries, construction, machinery and metal manufacturing.

They are eligible to stay for two more years in Japan if they pass a test certifying their skills after working for one year.

Chinese represent the largest group of foreign trainees, followed by Vietnamese and Indonesians.

Critics say the program is a source of cheap labor. Indonesia began sending apprentices in the early 1990s.

As the new century dawned, there was a surge in the number of Indonesians flocking to Japan to work in the fishing industry. This was attributed in part to a scarcity of jobs back home after the financial meltdown that ripped through Asia in 1997 and 1998.

Japan, in those days like right now, needed an influx of foreign workers as the fishing industry grappled with a growing body of aged workers with few young people willing to opt for that way of life.

It is said that many of an estimated 300-400 fisheries trainees in Japan hail from Indonesia.

Pudji Utami, which is located on the outskirts of Jakarta, is one of a number of Indonesian companies that recruits apprentices.

The five trainees who worked aboard the Horiei Maru at the time of the accident came through this company.

Pudji Utami dispatches 200 or so Indonesian youths to Japan each year, mostly to prefectures such as Mie, Miyazaki and Miyagi.

Not all of those trainees work on boats: Some work at seafood processing factories.

When the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, there were 33 Indonesian women from Pudji Utami working at a seafood processing factory in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the hardest-hit areas.

“I could not go to sleep because I was so worried about them,” said Imron Natsir, president and director of Pudji Utami. “But they were all safe. They fled to the top of a building. I was so relieved.” Imron says Indonesian apprentices are held in high regard by the Japanese fishing industry. “Indonesians cannot read kanji, unlike their Chinese peers, but their good reputation as fishermen must have spread among Japanese officials through word-of-mouth,” he says.

Chinese hold most of the jobs held by trainees at seafood processing factories.

But Indonesian officials say they expect more of their compatriots will be recruited after relations between Japan and China soured following the recent flare-up of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

Most of apprentices working at factories are women. Compared with fishing, it is generally easier for foreign trainees to learn how to speak Japanese and take a correspondence course while working at factories.

The Institute of Cooperative Management of Indonesia opened an education course five years ago for Indonesian trainees in Japan.

The women working at the Kesennuma factory were supposed to be the first batch of enrollees who complete the course.

But many of them returned to Indonesia after the 2011 disaster without completing the course.

Muhammad Taufiq, board chairman of the institute, says he will lobby the Indonesian government for the creation of a system that will help such trainees become independent.

“I want to make good use of the experiences of the young people who sent money to their parents while working hard in Japan,” he said.