Japan must completely revise its immigration rules to deal with a shortage of labour in an ageing society or risk losing workers to China, whose population is also greying, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said on Wednesday.
Following the dismal passing percentage of those who are taking the national licensure in Japan for “kangoshi” (nurses) [看護師] and “kaigofukushishi” (caregiver) [介護福祉士], the Japanese government has begun to introduce several improvements to make the examination easier for foreign applicants by replacing difficult words with easier ones.
It says much about Japan’s fortress-like approach to immigration that it made news when the country accepted 27 refugees from Burma late last year.
They were first of a group of 90 Burmese that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office persuaded Japan to accept as arguably a first baby step towards creating an humanitarian immigration program
Figures from the UNHCR suggest that although Japan ratified the Refugee Convention of 1982, it has accepted just 500 refugees since then. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it took three years for Japan to accept 500 refugees from the Indochinese exodus, although it eventually took in another 10,000.
Since then the number of refugees accepted each year (about 30) has been tiny for an industrialised nation, even though almost half of applications for asylum came from Asia between 2005 and 2009.
In comparison, Australia accepts more than 13,000 humanitarian migrants each year.
Unmoved, Japan has sat back in isolation, watching as Australia, Canada, the US and Europe’s societies became increasingly multicultural and, in many cases, more affluent.
Perhaps the biggest boost to productivity and growth in these countries has come from judiciously chosen skilled migrants, but refugees have made a startling contribution of their own.
Five of the eight Australian billionaires in 2000 were from refugee families and Australia counts Gustav Nossal and Frank Lowy among a host of humanitarian migrant success stories. Research suggests the children of refugees will produce an even greater impact.
Similar lessons exist within Japan, should it choose to heed them. Masayoshi Son, the head of multibillion technology company Softbank and Japan’s equivalent to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, is of Korean-Chinese decent. There are many other high-flyers within the country’s Zainichi Korean community, who are descendants of labourers brought to Japan (often unwillingly) during the country’s colonisation of the Korean Peninsula, and in the lead-up to World War II.
The government’s most significant recent attempt at an economic migration initiative was classically Japanese: faced with labour shortages in the boom years of the early 1990s, it imported workers from South America. But only those from the Japanese communities of Peru and Brazil, as it was felt they would assimilate better. Recently, with the economy in the doldrums, it began paying these people to go home, provided, in many cases, that they agreed never to return, a miserable end to a short-sighted experiment.
But it is precisely this economic stagnation that is the at the nub of a new push to establish a more comprehensive skilled migration program. The idea that immigration is of net benefit to productivity and economic growth is not universally accepted in Japan, although it is beginning to win favour in some quarters.
Projections suggest Japan’s population is on track to drop from 127 million to just 90 million in the next 45 years, by which time almost 40 per cent would be aged over 65. A look at a bar chart of the age distribution of the Japanese population in the 1950s looks like a Christmas tree, a wide base comprised of people of working age or younger, tapering off to a thin peak of older people.
Now the chart looks like the profile of a rugby player: bulging shoulders comprised of workers in their 50s or 60s, gradually thinning through the younger age groups.
Fast-forward to 2055 and the profile becomes more like an invertered pyramid, with relatively few young and productive workers supporting a host of retirees.
For the rest of the developed world, Japan is the canary in the mine of demographic change. Most wealthy nations will face the same challenges, although perhaps later than Japan, and perhaps not as severely. This grim reality is driving some pressure for change in Japan. There is now a cross-party group of MPs dedicated to radically (by Japanese standards anyway) upgrading Japan’s immigration program.
A needlessly pedantic Japanese language exam that was cruelling the prospects of foreign nurses from The Philippines and Indonesia (a rare example of a skilled migration initiative in Japan) is being revised to focus on technical proficiency rather than advanced linguistics.
Labour shortages in aged care (one of the few boom industries in Japan at the moment) and other less desirable areas of work are increasing pressure on authorities to look abroad for workers.
A recent paper by the Japan Forum on International Relations that argued for a heavily increased skilled migration program attracted 90 signatories, among them politicians, academics, business leaders and former diplomats.
One of the paper’s authors, JFIR president Kenichi Ito, says he sees Australia’s skilled migration program (which takes in more than 100,000 people a year), along with those of the US and Canada, as examples for Japan to follow.
But even a liberal such as Ito warns of the dangers of resettlement failures, pointing to tensions in France and Germany as a reason to proceed carefully down the path of opening up Japan.
Another co-author of the paper, Kwansei University academic Yasushi Iguchi, says the Japanese government needs to come up with a much more active policy on accepting refugees.
The Japan Association for Refugees says there have been some small steps towards fairer treatment for asylum-seekers in Japan, but beyond the agreement to take 90 Burmese, there are no moves for an increase in humanitarian migrants.
Associate secretary-general Eri Ishikawa says the UNHCR believes Japan imposes too great a burden of proof of persecution on asylum-seekers and the system is too strict.
The main applicant nationalities of the 1380 asylum-seekers in 2009 were Burmese, Sri Lankans, Kurdish Turks and Pakistanis. Most of these people’s cases are still going through the system, as it takes two years for a decision.
Ishikawa says rights of appeal are limited and the justice ministry judges both the first application and the subsequent appeal.
Japan, unlike Australia, doesn’t have mandatory detention, rather it is up to immigration officers’ discretion and some applicants do end up in detention centres. At the moment, there are 207 asylum-seekers detained in Japan. Many asylum-seekers are allowed to work, but few would earn enough to fund a court case, which is the final option of review.
“We don’t have specific numbers in mind that should be granted asylum, but we want the Japanese government to have fairer asylum procedures and fairer treatment of applicants,” Ishikawa says.
While Japan has a small but strong nationalist movement, Ishikawa says public sentiment is trending towards greater acceptance of foreigners.
“I think the public opinion is really positive about accepting more refugees and the media response is really encouraging. Japan’s media always criticises the low number of refugees accepted,” she says.
In risk-averse Japan there is a longstanding preoccupation with social cohesion and doubts over whether new arrivals will fit in. But this is seen as a two-way street, and Japanese expect their fellow citizens and their government to make efforts to assist refugees to settle down and learn the language and customs of the place.
Ishikawa says the tiny Burmese community has fitted in well and perhaps that’s why the government chose to accept refugees from there, above other places.
But you can’t run a skilled migration program with nationality as a criterion – whoever applies with the right skills should get the visa, regardless of where they come from.
If this is to be the way forward, it seems monocultural Japan must learn to embrace cultural differences while enjoying the much needed boost to the economy the newcomers will generate.
The Japanese government plans to extend by a year the stays of Indonesian nurses and caregivers who came to Japan in 2008 under a bilateral accord, to give them an extra chance to take the yearly Japanese nursing qualification exam, sources close to the matter said Wednesday.
The move comes on the back of low qualification rates among Indonesian and Filipino nurses and caretakers, who have come to Japan with the requirement to pass the qualifying exam within three years of their respective arrivals or else be sent back to their countries, based on the economic partnership agreements which Japan has signed with Indonesia and the Philippines.
For those who came to Japan in 2008, the upcoming test in February would have been their last chance, but they would now be allowed to stay until August next year to have another try at the test to be held in February 2012.
More than a thousand nurses and caregivers have come to Japan from Indonesia and the Philippines since 2008 with the aim of becoming qualified to work in Japan. But so far, only two Indonesians and one Filipino have passed the Japanese nursing exam, all in the one held in February last year.
There had been calls from the nurses and caretakers as well as from facilities that have received them for training to extend the period of stay as it seemed difficult for them to pass the exam in the given period due to insufficient language and other training.
Starting with this year’s exam, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has decided to modify the Japanese expressions used in the questions to make it easier for foreigners to understand.
The nursing licensure exam in Japan for foreigners will be modified in February in the hope that more foreign nurses will be able to pass it and eventually work with Japanese patients, a Philippine official said Tuesday.
Philippine Overseas Employment Agency chief Jennifer Manalili said Japan has agreed to put English translations beside some Japanese technical or medical terms in its upcoming licensure exam following requests by the Philippine government.
“Japan has come up already with a commitment that for the next licensure exam, which is held every February, very difficult kanji words that are too technical for nurses will have English translations beside them, enclosed in parenthesis, so that they will be easier for our candidate nurses to understand,” Manalili said.
So far, only one Filipino and two Indonesian nurses have passed the Japanese nursing licensure exam — the one held in February this year — since foreigners were allowed to take it under free trade accords between Japan and other countries.
In February last year, none of the 82 foreigners who took the test passed. This year’s test was taken by 254 foreigners.
Since the implementation of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement in December 2008, more than 300 Filipino nurses have been deployed to Japan to undergo language training, fewer than the initial target of 1,000 for the first two years, Manalili said.
The language barrier has been regarded as the main stumbling block in the dispatch of Filipino nurses to Japan, and whether or not they could practice there.
“With this development wherein there will be translations in the exam, we hope that we can have more passers,” Manalili said.
A powerful group of politicians, academics and business leaders is set to launch an unusual campaign to urge Japan to pry open its doors to foreigners, saying the country’s survival hinges on revamping its immigration policy.
Japan has one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world, and the debate over whether to allow more foreigners to settle in the country has long been a contentious, politically charged issue for the nation. But recently, calls to allow more foreign workers to enter Japan have become louder, as the aging population continues to shrink and the country’s competitiveness and economic growth pales in comparison with its neighbor to the west: China. A minuscule 1.7% of the overall Japanese population are foreigners, compared with 6.8% in the United Kingdom and 21.4% in Switzerland, according to the OECD.
The 87-member policy council of the Japan Forum of International Relations, a powerful nonprofit research foundation, will on Thursday launch a half-page advertisement in the country’s leading newspapers, urging Japan to rethink its immigration policy. They also submitted their policy recommendations to Naoto Kan, the country’s prime minister.
“If Japan wants to survive in a globalized world economy and to advance her integration with the burgeoning East Asian economy, she essentially has no other choice but to accept foreign migrants,” the advertisement says.
The policy council has issued several recommendations, including allowing more skilled workers to enter the labor market, particularly in industries where there are shortages of domestic workers, such as construction and the auto industry. Under economic-partnership agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines, Tokyo has allowed nurses and nursing-care specialists from these countries to enter Japan, but applicants are subjected to a grueling test in Japanese that only three people have passed. The council says these tests have to be made easier.
“Foreign employment may create employment for the Japanese—it’s bridging Japan with the rest of the world,” said Yasushi Iguchi, a professor at Kwansei Gakuin University and a member of the policy council.
Despite Japan’s stance that it doesn’t accept unskilled foreign workers, these days, Chinese cashiers are a common sight at Tokyo’s ubiquitous convenience stores; South Asian clerks are becoming more plentiful at supermarkets and on construction sites. Their ability to work in these positions is often thanks to numerous loopholes in Japan’s immigration policy, which allows students studying in Japan to work a certain number of hours a week. The country also has a technical internship program that allows younger workers to come into Japan and work as a “trainee” for a year, though this has been maligned as a cheap way to exploit foreign workers and pay them menial wages.
Mr. Kan’s government has said it wants to double the number of high-skilled foreign workers as part of its strategy to revive Japan in its growth strategy report compiled in June. The government is eyeing the introduction of a points-based system, in which it gives favored immigration treatment to foreigners depending on their past careers, accomplishments and expertise. The government also aims to increase the number of foreign students to 300,000 through initiatives such as allowing them to accept credits earned in foreign colleges and accepting more foreign teachers.
But this doesn’t mean more foreigners will necessarily want to come to Japan: in 2009, the number of foreigners who live in Japan fell for the first time in nearly half a century. Only one group bucked the trend: the Chinese, one of the few minority groups to increase its presence last year. Chinese nationals now make up nearly a third of Japan’s foreign population.
“If we stop discussing this and stop reforming, our system will be inadequate to cope with the realities,” said Mr. Iguchi. “In rural areas, we can’t maintain local industries—it will increase our competitiveness.”
Jusuf Anwar, Indonesian ambassador to Japan, has bewailed the overly stringent Japanese national examinations for foreign caregivers and nurses. Out of the 500 Indonesians who took the examinations in 2008 and 2009, only two have passed and have become certified nurses.
Anwar revealed this concern at the “First Public Forum on Indonesia” held on July 23, 2010 at the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
The problem, he said, is the “kanji” character proficiency part of the examinations. An added burden is that when they fail their exams on the third try, the nurses are obliged to leave the country immediately.
The examinations are part of the criteria introduced by the Tokyo government in line with the Indonesia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (IJ-EPA) provision on allowing foreign caregivers and nurses to practice their profession in Japan. The IJ-EPA took effect in 2008 but two years after, Ambassador Anwar said he doubted its usefulness unless the examinations can be made less rigid to enable more Indonesian nurses and caregivers to qualify.
He urged that, rather than emphasizing the “kanji” writing abilities of the nurses, the examinations should concentrate on the competence and technical abilities of the examinees. On this point, Anwar was certain that more Indonesian nurses would easily qualify, given their past experiences working in Japan, even if only in a “kenshusei” (trainee) capacity, and from the gathered testimonies of their patients. And for those who fail, they should be allowed to stay and work for at least one year rather than abruptly ending their employment, Anwar added.
Observers see Japan’s decision to allow the certification of foreign nurses and caregivers as being prompted by concerns over the country’s rapidly aging population and the lack of competent professionals to care for elderly Japanese.
The Japan Times has reported that more and more senior Japanese are left to fend for themselves and many die alone in their homes. The Times reported that in Tokyo alone, “People over 65 who died alone in their residence, including by suicide, stood at 2,211 in 2008, compared with 1,364 in 2002.”
The Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry has denied any connection between “accepting foreign caregivers” and “the manpower shortage in health care.” This is belied, however, by a health ministry survey cited by the Times that shows “about 60 percent of hospitals and about 50 percent of welfare facilities that have accepted Indonesian candidates (say) they offered them jobs hoping to improve staff levels.”
Philippine nurses, too
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) announced in early 2009 that Japan was poised to hire 1,000 foreign nurses and caregivers over the next two years subject, of course, to their passing the language proficiency examinations.
This was a concession included in the controversial Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA).
The woes of Indonesian health care practitioners resonate in the case of their Filipino counterparts. Since the Philippine program began last year, only one Filipino, Ever Lalin, has successfully hurdled the Japanese tests.
In May 2010, Japan Today reported that another batch of 116 Filipino nurses and caregivers left for Japan to undergo a six-month language and cultural course after a screening program that the POEA described as “more rigorous.”
During this training program, the Filipinos will receive a monthly allowance of $400 (about P18,400). Those who pass the Japanese certification and become regular nursing or caregiver staff will get a salary of $1,600 (about P73,600) or more a month.
Nursing associations in both Indonesia and the Philippines have expressed dissatisfaction with their respective EPAs with respect to the hiring of nurses and caregivers to work in Japan.
In a position paper issued as early as 2007, the Philippine Nurses Association (PNA), through its president, Dr. Leah Samaco-Paquiz, said that the JPEPA “shortchanges the professional qualifications of Filipino nurses and exposes them to potential abuse and discrimination.”
Dr. Paquiz cited the Japan Nursing Association’s own call for reforms and improvements in their own country’s nursing system in terms of “improving the working conditions, salaries, and benefits of Japanese nurses before Japan allows the entry of Filipino nurses.”
Dr. Paquiz also pointed out that Indonesian nurses under the IJ-EPA “got a better deal” compared to Filipino nurses, as the former are required to have “only three years of formal nursing education and only two years of work experience,” and are not required to pass an Indonesian licensure examination before they are allowed entry into Japan. Filipino nurses, on the other hand, “are required to have had four years of formal nursing education plus three years of work experience, in addition to having passed the licensure examination in the Philippines.”
The major gripe of the PNA, however, centers on the degradation of the Filipino nurses’ position in that, despite having acquired “four years of higher education…, proof of competence via a Philippine license to practice…(and) three years of solid work experience,” the nurses will end up simply as trainees under the supervision of a Japanese nurse for up to three years until they pass the Japanese licensure examination.
Dr. Paquiz adds: They also risk having virtually zero employment rights in Japan as they are considered neither employees nor workers under Japan’s Immigration Control Act. Specific provisions committing Japan to international core labor standards and the protection of the rights of migrant health workers are also absent in the agreement.
The PNA also decried the high language skills required, noting that they “constitute an almost impregnable barrier” to the nurses’ entry. Given these “unnecessarily stringent requirements, (Filipino nurses) will most likely end up providing cheap labor and quality nursing care as nursing trainees in Japanese health care facilities.”
Dr. Paquiz ends the PNA’s position with the plea not to commoditize the nursing profession by classifying nurses as a mere economic category under the JPEPA.
The PNA’s fears appear to be confirmed by Emily Homma, a resident of Saitama prefecture who has been assisting Filipino nurses and caregivers. In a February 11, 2010 letter to the Japan Times, Homma charges that the JPEPA has “placed many Filipino nurses and caregivers working in Japan in a miserable situation where they are subjected to unfair labor practices, extreme pressure to pass licensing exams in Japanese, cramped living conditions, and poor salaries.”
On the other hand, the Indonesian National Nurses Association, through its president, Achir Yani, “has called on the Japanese government to be more flexible in the national nursing exam….”
Yani, a University of Indonesia professor, also suggested that a “kanji” pronunciation aid be allowed and that the examinees be given four chances (instead of three) to pass the tests.
Kyodo News reports that Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada had met with Indonesian and Filipino officials in January 2010 and promised “to consider addressing the language issue for foreign nurses.”
At the July 2010 forum at Kyoto University, however, Ambassador Anwar said he has repeatedly raised this issue with the Japanese government but his efforts to have the examination rules relaxed have been in vain.
And given the niggardly passing rate for Indonesian nurses and caregivers, Ambassador Anwar says that “the future of the program to alleviate the problems associated with Japan’s aging society is not so bright.”
Communications Strategy Secretary Ricky Carandang said that during the [17th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] talks Friday night, [Japanese Prime Minister Naoto] Kan promised to help make it easier for Filipino nurses to pass Japanese exams so that they could work in Japan under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement.
Carandang told reporters that one of the options was to train the Filipino nurses to speak Japanese even before they leave for Japan and before they take the exam.
He noted that the language barrier was what made it hard for Philippine nurses to enter Japan.
“They recognize that. They want to use simplified characters, they want to use abbreviations that are more internationally accepted so that our nurses could be easily accepted in Japan,” he said.
The strict language requirements under the JPEPA is one of the points of contention in the controversial agreement, with the Philippine Nurses Association saying that the high language skills required was an “almost impregnable barrier” and could lead to Filipino nurses ending up providing cheap labor as nursing trainees in Japanese health care facilities.
Wahyudin dreams of becoming a full-fledged caregiver, if not a certified nurse, in Japan. But the Indonesian worker must first pass the required Japanese-language national certification examination, which is far from easy.
Until then the 29-year-old Wahyudin, a registered nurse in his home country, will remain a caregiver trainee in an elderly-care facility in Yamada city in western Tokushima prefecture, where he has worked since arriving in Japan two years ago.
“It’s a long shot but there is no other way I can push my career forward and build a stable future [unless I pass the test],” Wahyudin, who uses one name, said of the examination.
Passing it would give him the professional caregiver status thatwould allow him to be hired by any hospital or nursing home in Japan. He can also expect higher compensation.
The language examination is designed to ensure integration into Japanese society and meet professional standards, but few foreigners manage to pass it. Now, those who work with the elderly in one of the world’s fastest aging societies say it is time to take a second look at this requirement, given Japan’s rapidly growing need for caregivers, many of whom come from overseas.
“Expecting foreign caregivers and nurses to pass the difficult examination in Japanese is unfair and smacks of discrimination,” said Tsutomu Fukuma, spokesman for the Japanese Council of Senior Citizens Welfare Service, a leading nursing care provider.
“The system has disappointed them and many are giving up on staying in Japan, which is not what we want,” he said.
As it is, the Health and Welfare Ministry says the number of Japanese caregivers, most of them middle-aged, is declining. There were 350,000 workers in the healthcare system in 2009, down from 400,000 three years ago. Younger Japanese are not entering the sector.
Japan has 13 million people aged over 75, or 10% of its population of 127 million. In 2025, that age group is projected to grow to 22 million people – and the government predicts that the country will need more than two million caregivers by then.
This is why Japan has been turning to foreign caregivers, but they are not finding it easy to stay for too long in the country. At present, foreign nurses and caregivers are allowed to work in Japan for a maximum of three and four years, respectively. During this period, they must study Japanese and pass the certifying examination that they can take only once.
Because Japan is officially a closed labor market to foreigners, it has different agreements with countries that allow a certain number of “trainees” each year to come work for specified periods of time.
Wahyudin, for instance, came under an economic partnership agreement (EPA) signed between Japan and Indonesia in 2008. A similar pact was signed with the Philippines, another major provider of caregivers here, in 2006.
There are 570 Indonesians and 310 Filipinos working in nursing or elder homes in Japan. A total of 254 have taken the nursing examination, but only three – two Indonesians and one Filipino – have passed and acquired full-time employment status.
Among others, caregivers and nurses seeking professional certification in Japan are lobbying the government to allow foreign examinees to use dictionaries during the test to help them with unfamiliar technical terms and Kanji or Chinese characters, one of three scripts used in the Japanese language, or Nihongo.
But beyond the examination itself, caregivers rue the limited time they have to study the language.
“It’s really hard for us to reach the level of language needed to successfully sit for the exam,” said Wahyudin, who has just one hour or so a day to review his Nihongo owing to his busy work schedule. He is getting formal language training, but he said this is far from adequate even with the six-month government-subsidized language course.
The situation of the elderly in Japan also reflects changing norms that have seen more young adults living away from their aging parents. In fact, the number of Japanese who are over 65 years old, living alone and with no one to look after them, numbered more than 4.6 million as of June 2009.
To many, this highlights even more the need for more caregivers, but not everyone agrees.
Professor Keiko Higuchi, a member of the government panel of welfare advisors, said Japan’s caregiving system should instead encourage the elderly to lead more independent lives. “I am not against accepting foreign caregivers or nurses. But before we start opening the doors [to them], Japan must ensure that its nursing care for the elderly continues to focus on helping them to help themselves,” she said.
Yukiko Okuma, a well-known author on nursing care for the elderly, sees Japan’s EPAs with Indonesia and the Philippines as a quick fix.
“The EPA with Indonesia is a quick remedy for the labor shortage we face in the welfare sector. As a result, we now have a system that faces the risk of lowering Japan’s nursing standards to accommodate more Asian nationals who are themselves not treated fairly under the scheme,” she said.
Okuma adds that today’s situation is also a product of a society where women, especially wives and daughters-in-law, have traditionally taken care of aging parents, leading to “a poorly recognized and underfinanced welfare system” in Japan.
“Japan’s welfare for the elderly must be viewed as a national priority, where workers are treated well by giving them good salaries, paid vacations and other employment benefits, whether they are Japanese or Asians,” she said.
The Philippine government has begun language classes to help nurses wanting to go and work in Japan overcome the high language barrier, and even pays them to enroll.
The project is aimed at boosting the rate of Philippine applicants who pass Japan’s national nursing examination and increasing the number of nurses seeking a career in Japan under the economic partnership agreement (EPA) between the two countries.
During one recent Japanese class, a teacher held up a panel with kanji for difficult words, such as “roasha” [聾唖者] (the hearing impaired) and “nenza” [捻挫] (sprain), while the students read the words aloud in unison.
In February, 59 Philippine nurses made their first attempt at Japan’s national nursing exams; only one passed. If nurses on the EPA program fail to pass the exam for three straight years, they must return home.
Questions have been raised over the current EPA arrangement, which offers foreign nurses only six months of Japanese language lessons.
The EPA between Japan and the Philippines took effect in December 2008. In May last year, the Philippines began dispatching nurses and caregivers to Japan. Under the EPA deal, Japan accepts up to 1,000 such nurses and caregivers for two years, but only 436 have been sent so far.
In Japan, the high cost of getting foreign nurses up to speed because of the language hurdle has deterred some potential employers from hiring them. The EPA will be reviewed next year, and Tokyo likely will seek to tweak the current system.
Viveca Catalig, a deputy administrator at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, acknowledged his country’s own effort has its limits, and said he hopes Japan will consider expanding its language training and easing requirements for nurses in order not to disappoint motivated Philippine applicants.