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Barriers deter Asian nurses from Japan

Indonesians Razes Mezintoro, 29, and Ema Yuliana, 27, passed a tough care workers exam to stay in Japan and work. The ageing country needs more foreign nurses to cope with a labour shortage in the sector. (PHOTO: KUN LAI LENG)

Publication Date : 15-10-2012


Four years ago, Japan cracked open its doors to let in, first, nurses from the Philippines and then Indonesia in a move to ease a shortage of care workers in the ageing country.

Even now, as Japan prepares to welcome its first care workers from Vietnam next year, precious few foreigners are knocking on its doors due to its continued ambivalence towards foreign labour.

The number of Indonesians who came to Japan to be nurses or care workers has fallen from 362 in 2009 to 101 this year, said Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. The number of those from the Philippines dropped from 283 in 2009 to 101 now.

Language is a key barrier, but culture is bigger. Though Japanese businessmen have called for Japan, whose population is expected to shrink by nearly a third by 2060, to accept more immigrants, many Japanese - who see themselves as ethnically homogeneous and fear their culture may be diluted - are unconvinced.

Foreign residents make up just 1.6 per cent of Japan's 128 million people. By contrast, South Korea's foreigners account for 3 per cent of a 50 million population.

Foreign care workers wanting to stay on to work must, like native applicants, pass a Japanese exam that features complex medical terms.

"It was very hard to remember Japanese words in the first year," said Ema Yuliana, 27, who came to Japan from Indonesia in 2008. She has since passed the test and is a certified care worker at an elderly home in Yokohama.

If she had not cleared the test in three to four years, she would have had to return home.

The exam's pass rate was abysmal at first. None of the 82 foreign exam takers passed in 2009 and only three out of 254 did in 2010. Tokyo later heeded calls to simplify the exam for foreigners, which helped raise the pass rate for nurses to 11.3 per cent, or 47 out of 415 this year.

Still, they are a tiny group, making up just one thousandth of the 48,700 local applicants who passed this year.

The high bar set for foreign workers shows how Tokyo remains wary about letting in too many foreigners. Japan does not allow unskilled foreign workers in at all. The foreign nurses and care workers come in under bilateral agreements signed between Japan and the three Asean states.

Japan has 1.4 million nursing care workers but needs 900,000 more by 2025 as it will have more elderly citizens then, reported The Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

But Japanese officials say letting in foreign caregivers is not meant to address the shortage.

"It's not a measure for labour shortage in the nursing and caregiving field," Nobuyuki Yumi of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare told Southeast Asian reporters on a fellowship hosted by the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association.

"I consider the fields of nursing and health care to be important ones that generate jobs in Japan. Now the Japanese, especially the younger generation, are struggling to find jobs," he added.

What's more, Yumi said former nurses who have quit can be encouraged to return to work instead. There is no consensus on the part of the Japanese government to take in more foreign nurses, he added.

Despite the difficulties of staying on, some like Indonesian Razes Mezintoro, 29, still prefer Japan to other places.

"In other countries, they tend to pay lower wages to foreign workers. But... Japan pays the same wages for comparable jobs," said Mezintoro, who passed the care worker exam this year.

Last year, foreign trainee nurses were paid 134,000 yen (US$1,700) to 135,000 yen a month on average.

Besides, he thinks he will never be jobless here: "I will be in a good position job security-wise, given the declining birth rate."


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