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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Concern uncovered at the gates

Apr. 27, 2017

More than 20 million foreigners came to Japan last year. Ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics in 3 years, the country is preparing to receive even more visitors. But international airports in Japan are confronting a new challenge.

They are having trouble keeping enough security inspectors on the job. Newsroom Tokyo examined what is happening at Narita Airport, near Tokyo; one of Japan's biggest airports.

During peak hours for departures at Narita Airport, a security check gate is packed with passengers waiting in long lines.

But even at those times, some lanes remain closed.

One person at the airport says, "I waited at least 30 minutes."

Another wonders, "What will happen during the Tokyo Olympics?"

About two years ago, there were about 900 inspectors from multiple screening companies working at Narita. But within a year, over 30 percent of them had quit. It's not easy getting new staff, so the remaining personnel have been burdened with a huge amount of work.

To find out the cause of the problem, we followed some staff working on the front-line at the airport's security check.

19-year-old Miyu Ishikawa longed to work at an airport, and joined a screening firm last year.

On one day, her work starts at 7 a.m. Ishikawa is assigned to the check gates for international flights. She becomes tense as the day begins.

A passenger fails the metal detector check, so Ishikawa performs a body-search. She empties the passenger's coin case to confirm no sharp tools are inside.

She checks a bottle to make sure it contains no dangerous liquid, such as gasoline. She must be careful but quick.

"I have to be clear when I tell passengers they can't take dangerous goods on board," Ishikawa says. "I have to stay sharp."

She goes through training between her shifts. Only licensed staff can conduct X-ray baggage checks. Because the team is understaffed, new members are being urged to acquire the necessary skills as soon as they can.

The inspectors are required to spot any dangerous objects in packed baggage in a matter of seconds. Ishikawa finds a small knife in one key case. The inspectors must not overlook any potential danger.

After a hard day's work, Ishikawa arrives home. She goes straight to her desk, without taking a break. She's been studying to obtain the national qualification to become a supervisor.

She says it's hard to make time for studying while working irregular shifts. But she is driven by the desire to ensure aviation safety.

Ishikawa says, "I do wonder if I can maintain the physical strength to do my job, which is also tough mentally. But even when it's hard, I try to stay focused."

The work may give inspectors a sense of fulfillment, but often that's not enough to keep them in the job. Thirty-year-old Yuji Kamii left a screening company last year. He has a wife and a child.

He had worked for the firm for 8-and-a-half years, making only about 2,000 dollars a month at the time he left. He had been worried about securing enough money to raise his son. It was also difficult to spend time with his family, as he worked irregular hours.

He had obtained the top national license in the industry, so it wasn't an easy decision to make.

Kamii says, "The largest problem was that I wasn't being paid for all the hours spent at work. I decided to prioritize my personal life over the sense of fulfillment the job gave me."

Screening companies find it difficult to improve their employees' working conditions. Behind the problem is the complicated way the industry is organized.

The screening firms are entrusted to conduct the checks by airline carriers. The carriers pay a commission to the screening companies, who then pay their staff. It's difficult to get all carriers to agree to raise the fees they pay the screening firms. So it is hard for the screening companies alone to improve working conditions.

One company is trying to improve the welfare of its personnel. It has built a new dormitory to make it easier for their employees to continue working long-term.

Shoichi Kubota is a manager at a screening company. Kubota says, "It normally takes a worker about 3 years to become a fully-fledged licensed inspector. Right now, it's difficult to ensure that our inspectors' skills, knowledge and sense for the job are passed on."

Starting from April, the operator of Narita Airport began to make its own efforts to ease congestion and improve the quality of security checks.

The operator has decided to launch 8 working groups to discuss the security staff's working conditions and provide support to maintain the workforce required.

It intends to come up with concrete measures within 2 years. For example, it is considering a new salary system and launching training programs at overseas airports to increase the motivation of personnel.

Shigeru Uno is with the Narita International Airport Corporation Security Department. He says, "Safety is a serious concern. We can't turn a blind eye to the working environment or the problems facing the staff who take responsibility for safety. All the relevant parties have to work together to resolve the issue."


NHK Narita bureau correspondent Souyou Jibiki covered the story. He joined Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio to discuss the issue.

Beppu: Every time I come back from abroad, I feel that the security checks in Japanese airports are very comfortable. The inspectors are, generally speaking, friendly and polite--you really don't see people being yelled at that you see at other airports in other parts of the world. But behind these kind smiles, they work in a very tough condition.

Jibiki: That's right. Right now there is a serious labor shortage in every industry in Japan, and airport security is no exception. Efforts are necessary to ensure that there are enough inspectors.

The Transport and Tourism Ministry provides support for the introduction of a new system to make security checks quicker. Airline companies are also implementing measures to motivate security personnel. For instance, they give awards to excellent staff members. But labor conditions, including salaries, must be improved in order to retain a sufficient number of inspectors.

Shibuya: Now with the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games coming up in three years, it's important to make sure that there are enough airport inspectors. What has to be done to improve working conditions?

Jibiki: Experts point out that it's necessary to change society's mindset about safety.

One of them is Hajime Tozaki, a Research Professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University. He says, "Japan needs to adopt a new mindset. The country has never experienced a fundamental threat, so many think there's no need to spend money on security. It's crucial for the government to recognize the importance of security checks, nurture skilled inspectors and increase efforts to improve working conditions."

Since more than 20 million foreign visitors come to Japan annually, securing inspection staff is an urgent task.

Security checks are being done sufficiently at airports now, but there is concern that the quality of the inspections will drop off if more inspectors leave and work know-how is not passed on.

Covering this issue, I realized it's important for Japan to review safety awareness and for everyone to work together to implement whatever measures are needed.