Wash Post: “Strict immigration rules may threaten Japan’s future”, focus on nursing program


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Hi Blog.  Here’s more information that we’re making public seeping into overseas media.  Nothing terribly new to regular readers here (but no doubt new to many readers overseas).  But brace yourself for the Comments section of this article, full of the nastiness that goes beyond cultural relativity.  Amazing how immigrants are the eternal bashables, told to abide by whatever vague rules the nativists come up with (and don’t always follow themselves), told to accept inferior wages and working conditions, and told to go home if they have any problems or complaints.  Worse yet is when the government is essentially saying the same thing by setting up hurdles that are nearly insurmountable.  As the article gets into below.  Enjoy.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Strict immigration rules may threaten Japan’s future
By Chico Harlan
The Washington Post Wednesday, July 28, 2010
, Courtesy lots of people.

TOKYO — Her new country needs her, her new employer adores her, and Joyce Anne Paulino, who landed here 14 months ago knowing not a word of the language, can now say in Japanese that she’d like very much to stay. But Paulino, 31, a nurse from the Philippines, worries about the odds. To stay in Japan long-term, she must pass a test that almost no foreigner passes.

For Japan, maintaining economic relevance in the next decades hinges on its ability — and its willingness — to grow by seeking outside help. Japan has long had deep misgivings about immigration and has tightly controlled the ability of foreigners to live and work here.

But with the country’s population expected to fall from 127 million to below 100 million by 2055, Prime Minister Naoto Kan last month took a step toward loosening Japan’s grip on immigration, outlining a goal to double the number of highly skilled foreign workers within a decade.

In Japan, just 1.7 percent of the population (or roughly 2.2 million people) is foreign or foreign-born. Foreigners represent small slices of almost every sector of the economy, but they also represent the one slice of the population with a chance to grow. Japan is on pace to have three workers for every two retirees by 2060.

But the economic partnership program that brought Paulino and hundreds of other nurses and caretakers to Japan has a flaw. Indonesian and Filipino workers who come to care for a vast and growing elderly population cannot stay for good without passing a certification test. And that test’s reliance on high-level Japanese — whose characters these nurses cram to memorize — has turned the test into a de facto language exam.

Ninety percent of Japanese nurses pass the test. This year, three of 254 immigrants passed it. The year before, none of 82 passed.

For immigrant advocates, a pass-or-go-home test with a success rate of less than 1 percent creates a wide target for criticism — especially at a time when Japan’s demographics are increasing the need for skilled foreign labor.

For many officials in the government and the medical industry, however, difficulties with the program point to a larger dilemma confronting a country whose complex language and resistance to foreigners make it particularly tough to penetrate.

Kan’s goal to double the number of skilled foreign workers seems reasonable enough, given that Japan currently has 278,000 college-educated foreign workers — the United States has more than 8 million, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — but it meets some resistance.

An Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll in June asked Japanese about accepting immigrants to “maintain economic vitality.” Twenty-six percent favored the idea. Sixty-five percent opposed it. And the likelihood of substantive changes in immigration policy took a major hit, experts said, when Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan saw setbacks in parliamentary elections this month.

Political analysts now paint a grim picture of a country at legislative impasse. Foreigners such as Paulino find it difficult to get here, difficult to thrive and difficult to stay, and at least for now, Kan’s government will have a difficult time changing any of that.

‘A lack of urgency’

“There’s a lack of urgency or lack of sense of crisis for the declining population in Japan,” said Satoru Tominaga, director of Garuda, an advocacy group for Indonesian nurse and caretaker candidates. “We need radical policy change to build up the number” of such workers. “However, Japan lacks a strong government; if anything, it’s in chaos.”

When Japan struck economic partnership agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines, attracting nurses and caretakers wasn’t the primary objective. Japan sought duty-free access for its automakers to the Southeast Asian market. Accepting skilled labor was just part of the deal.

But by 2025, Japan will need to almost double its number of nurses and care workers, currently at 1.2 million. And because of the test, substandard language skills, not substandard caretaking skills, are keeping the obvious solution from meeting the gaping need.

The 998 Filipino and Indonesian nurses and caretakers who’ve come to Japan since 2008 all have, at minimum, college educations or several years of professional experience. Nurses can stay for three years, with three chances to pass the test. Other caregivers can stay for four years, with one chance to pass. Those who arrive in Japan take a six-month language cram class and then begin work as trainees.

They are allotted a brief period every workday — 45 minutes, in Paulino’s case — for language study. Many also study for hours at night.

“The language skills, that is a huge hurdle for them,” said Kiichi Inagaki, an official at the Japan International Corporation for Welfare Services, which oversees the program. “However, if you go around the hospital, you understand how language is important. Nurses are dealing with medical technicalities. They are talking to doctors about what is important. In order to secure a safe medical system, they need a very high standard of Japanese.”

Advocates for foreign nurses and caregivers do not play down the importance of speaking and understanding Japanese. But they emphasize that the Japanese characters for medical terminology are among the hardest to learn; perhaps some jargon-heavy portion of the certification test, they say, could be given in English or workers’ native language.

A new culture

When Paulino boarded a flight from Manila to Tokyo in May 2009, she had a sense of trepidation and adventure — not that she could express it in Japanese. She saw her mission as a way to make better money and “explore herself,” she said. Her first chance for exploration came onboard, when a meal of rice, which she doesn’t like, came with chopsticks, which she didn’t know how to use.

“All the way to Japan, we were joking about that,” said Fritzie Perez, a fellow Filipino nurse who sat in the same row. “We were saying, ‘Joyce, how are you going to eat?’ “

Now eight months into her stint at the Tamagawa Subaru nursing home, Paulino feels comfortable speaking and joking with the elderly people she cares for.

“She did have problems initially, especially in the Japanese language, but there’s been so much improvement,” said Keisuke Isozaki, head of caretaking at the home. “She’s not capable of writing things down for the record, but otherwise she’s as capable as any Japanese staffer.”

Paulino said she is nervous about her test, scheduled for January 2013. This month, 33 nurses and caretakers returned to their home countries, discouraged with their chances.

Her friend, Perez, described the language study and the caretaking as “serving two masters at the same time.”

“When I get home, that’s when I study,” Paulino said. “But every time I read my book, I start to fall asleep. It’s bothering me. Because [the test] is only one chance. And I don’t know if I can get it.”

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

7 comments on “Wash Post: “Strict immigration rules may threaten Japan’s future”, focus on nursing program

  • The flip side of this is that if Japan can’t get its leadership act together and provide decent working conditions for its health care providers (doctors, nurses, and mid-wives are all overworked) they will go elsewhere. I’m in the US with a group of nursing students now. The need here is great, and the conditions are very attractive. Then the only option that will be left open to those in need of care in Japan will be to travel outside the country to find it, and the Philippines would probably be a good option. If those health care workers can wait a few years, the Japanese will probably come to them.

  • After reading things like this you’ve got to wonder if the system and the mechanisms that control it can ever be reformed or will it just keep muddling on. Will a white knight come and rescue them or will the Japanese just have to suffer out the consequences? How many articles have been written about Japan at the crossroads? After reading about “The Cove” I get the feeling the western world is more concerned about dolphins than the plight of a people. I think that’s about the extent of intervention. Unless there is something more shocking presented I think the opinion is just to not bother.

    Japan-bashing, Japan-passing, Japan-nothing

    Eternally at the crossroads? Hope not.

    — A people have the power to save themselves. And they can, if friends can help friends break bad habits. The comparison with the plights of dolphins presented under The Cove is inapt.

  • When I first arrived in Japan in 1992 there were around 6M seniors aged 75+.
    When I left in 2000 this was 9M, +50% (!)

    (Children under 15 were 20M in 1992 and around 18M in 2000, down 10%, or 1%/yr)

    Now there are 13M aged 75+, again +50% and in 2025 there will be 20M seniors, +50% from now.

    (Children will fall from 18M today to 15M in 2025, down 15%, or 1%/yr)

    1992 6M
    2000 9M
    2010 13M
    2025 20M

    Japan’s living in denial if they think they can solve this problem with robot labor.

    I think the political thing here is The System not wanting to pay Japanese wages for non-Japanese equivalent labor, which is understandable.

    Skilled labor in the Philippines (call centers) makes $3/hr, or about 1/5th the Japanese wage rate.

    One way to solve the “language” problem would be to hire nursing from China, though China too is facing something of a demographic crunch thanks to its 1 child policy. Right now there are around 110M women in China in their 20s, this will fall to 95M in 2020 and 75M in 2050.

    China and Japan are equally screwed really. They need each other pretty badly, though I think Japan’s going to need China more this century. Both countries have immense USD holdings. The annual interest on Japan’s $800B could pay for 700,000 Pinay/Chinese nurses at $35,000/per

  • Thanks for a bunch of helpful figures, Troy, but is it really fair to compare nurses to those working in call centers? I’ve never heard of anything remotely resembling nursing training or knowledge being required of call center staff.

  • I was just comparing the general wage level . . . $3/hr in China/Philippines vs. ~$15/hr in Japan for the same type of work.

    Later I estimate a “fair” wage for imported nurses would be $35,000/yr or $17.50/hr, pretty good money for China and the Philippines. This assumes dormitory etc would also be included in employment so this amount could be saved by the import labor. Not a bad deal, all around, though I don’t know how The System is going to be able to accommodate the 700,000+ nurses they’re going to be needing.

    Then again with youth unemployment so bad they could train up the youth instead. Young women would rather be teachers than nurses perhaps, but the demographics say teaching is dead in Japan.

  • I wonder what test they are using? From the article I gather it’s a medical test rather than a language test a la JLPT. I think that learning enough Japanese to pass in 4 years is possible (3 years is marginal and 5 years would be much better), but it requires more than 45 minutes of self-guided study time a day. And of course, just as with English teaching in Japan, a lot of Japanese teaching to English students is less than ideal. It is a very difficult language for many reasons. I also wonder about the study materials available – I actually find learning specialized vocabulary (and the kanji to go with it) fairly easy, but if you don’t have a good, specialized medical dictionary and study materials I am sure you’re in deep doo-doo very quickly. If the test requires writing skills as well then that alone will make it much, much harder to pass.

    To be honest, I get the feeling that Japan never really lifted Sakoku, just relaxed it a bit. Going to Japan as a tourist is easy enough, but living there is a struggle, and outside of English instruction there still seems to be little room for foreigners. Every time NJ are allowed in it seems a lot is done to keep it temporary, for example the way the Brazilians were offered plane tickets if they never came back… The way this particular nurse’s visa is structured, it’s clear that the intent is to deny foreigners the ability to live in Japan rather than actually encourage Japanese proficiency in NJ workers.

    Then again, Japan is not alone (though worse than most) – every country seems to want disposable workers but balks at the idea of actual foreign people with actual foreign ways actually living in their country. This is true in the US, in Germany, in Switzerland, and in Japan.

    — Quick correction: Nikkei were offered those plane tickets if they forfeited their current preferential visa. They could come back on a different visa. Some have.


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