As war enters year two, Ukrainians are filling Japan’s tech gap
A scholarship programme aims to help displaced Ukrainians find jobs while addressing Japan’s chronic labour shortages.
Tokyo, Japan – When Leonid Riznyk arrived in Japan from war-torn Ukraine in April 2022, he knew that getting a job in Tokyo would be difficult.
Riznyk, who fled the northeastern city of Kharkiv with his girlfriend in the early days of the Russian invasion, spoke no Japanese and had little practical work experience beyond a stint as a part-time 3D printing engineer.
“The job hunt was tough,” Riznyk, 19, told Al Jazeera. “But there were good people who helped me a lot, so even I, a [newly] graduated Ukrainian student, could find a good position in a good company.”
Eight months after landing in Japan as one of about 2,000 Ukrainian “evacuees” granted temporary residency and work rights, Riznyk landed a job at Tokyo Techies, an IT consulting and software development company, as a front-end engineer.
Rizny’s break came through the Japan-Ukraine Tech Bridge initiative, a scholarship programme established to simultaneously help displaced Ukrainians find work and address worker shortages in Japan’s tech sector, which is feeling the effects of a rapidly ageing Japanese population.
Launched by NGO Stand With Ukraine Japan, apparel tech company Virtusize, and investment firm Nextblue, the scholarship is awarded to asylum seekers to allow them to participate in Le Wagon Tokyo, the local chapter of an intensive coding boot camp founded in France in 2013.
Three of the 10 available scholarships have already been awarded, one of which went to Riznyk.
“I had some minor experience in IT; just fundamentals of front-end development,” he said. “The boot camp helped me improve my skills and also build a portfolio for myself and finally open a gate to the world of the Japanese IT industry.”
Over the course of 10 weeks – consisting of nine weeks of programming from 9am to 6pm and a “career week” to help streamline graduates’ entry into the workplace – boot camp participants acquire the basic technical skills to become web developers and, potentially, land a coveted job at a Japanese tech company.
Sasha Kaverina, co-founder of Stand With Ukraine Japan and head of partnerships and growth at Le Wagon Tokyo, was in Japan when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of her homeland on February 24, 2022.
Then in March, Kaverina, a long-term Tokyo resident, made the difficult journey back home to convince her mother and father to temporarily relocate to the west of Ukraine from Kharkiv, a missile-battered city near the Russian border. After two restless days travelling on planes and buses, Kaverina met her parents in the city of Chernivtsi, where she worked remotely for her company in Japan while doing volunteer work and aid runs across the Romanian border.
Upon returning to Tokyo several weeks later, Kaverina felt determined to do whatever she could to help her people.
“I started to think about how I could help Ukrainians start a new life from scratch in Japan,” Kaverina told Al Jazeera. “The answer came pretty fast actually because I’m working at an institution that gives people the chance to switch to a new career.”
Kaverina floated the idea of a scholarship for Ukrainian “evacuees” – the Japanese government has yet to grant them formal “refugee” status – to Nextblue, an early-stage venture capital firm, and Virtusize, a fashion tech company founded in Sweden with headquarters in Tokyo.
Yuichi Kori, a general partner at Tokyo-based Nextblue, felt “great sadness” on seeing news reports of the Russian invasion, he told Al Jazeera.
So when Kaverina presented him with the idea of the Ukraine-Japan scholarship, Kori decided to back it right away, contacting the chief executives of firms in his investment portfolio, some of whom were keen to sponsor scholarships.
“Not only does this help Ukrainian refugees,” said Kaverina, “but once they graduate … it can also help tackle the shortage of IT specialists in Japan.”
Issues around poor digital literacy have plagued Japan during the last decade. The country’s rigid, seniority-based wage system has been criticised for undermining the IT sector, with low pay blamed for failing to lure ambitious IT engineers and software developers. In 2022, the jobs-to-applicants ratio for IT professionals hit 10 to one, the biggest disparity of any industry measured, according to figures from staffing agency Persol Career.
The sector’s relatively unattractive conditions have caused many young programmers and developers to look abroad or to foreign-owned companies.
Andreas Ueno-Olausson, the CEO of Virtusize, said his experience of working with Ukrainian tech partners led him to see young, technologically savvy Ukrainians struggling to find work in Japan as “wasted talent”.
“I have a dream that Japanese companies will hire Ukrainians coming to Japan and use this opportunity to get access to arguably the world’s best tech market, return on investment-wise,” Ueno-Olausson told Al Jazeera. “Put them into internships, put them into jobs in Japanese tech companies, and maybe they can be ‘the bridge’.”
The importance of Japan-Ukraine Tech Bridge has been underscored by the high proportion of unemployed Ukrainian evacuees. More than 60 percent of the 2,000 or so Ukrainian evacuees in Japan were unemployed at the end of last year, according to a survey by the Nippon Foundation. Nearly 80 percent of those with jobs were only working part-time, according to the survey.
Yulia Naumenko, a 30-year-old evacuee from Ukraine’s eastern city of Sumy, is among those currently exploring the job market.
After witnessing several failed attempts by authorities to evacuate civilians as the Russian army reduced Sumy to rubble, Naumenko and her mother were offered a lifeline by her brother, a software engineer who has been living in Tokyo for the past four years. Following a roundabout journey out of Ukraine, the pair arrived in Tokyo in late March last year.
Although Naumenko already had an interest in IT, she had misgivings when she heard about the scholarship programme in a group chat for Ukrainian asylum seekers. Not only was she working late nights as a data manager in Sumy seven time zones away, she was also juggling organising her documentation for residency and looking after her elderly mother.
Kaverina, the co-founder of Stand With Ukraine Japan, convinced Naumenko there was potential career growth within the IT sector and to apply for the scholarship. Naumenko heeded the advice and graduated from the boot camp alongside Riznyk last year.
“It is hard to find a job right now because people are not looking for junior engineers … and finding a job in IT is not a fast process,” Naumenko told Al Jazeera, referring to the multiple interviews and practical skills assessments necessary to land a role in web development.
Still, Naumenko has an upcoming interview with a local tech company and has several more applications pending a response.
“I’m also busy volunteering with Stand With Ukraine Japan, and doing work for my friends to make sure I don’t forget how to do the programming,” she said.
At Tokyo Techies, founded by Vietnamese entrepreneur Duc Doba, Riznyk has found himself thriving in a “laid-back” environment that allows him to refine his skills.
He plans to stay in Japan for at least another five years and hopes the local tech sector will realise the opportunity presented by the influx of Ukrainians.
“IT companies, if they can, should provide internships for Ukrainian refugees who want to be IT specialists,” Riznyk said.
“In the end, it will be more profitable for them, because most of the refugees are young, nearly graduated students, whose potential isn’t unlocked yet. The youth who seek an opportunity to work in Japan, live here and pay taxes will be repaying all who helped them.