Foreigners’ poor test grades force rethink on nurse tests

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Non-Japanese applicants hoping to become certified nurses could see the government’s notoriously rigorous exams get easier with the inclusion of English-language tests and a new set of communication exams based on basic Japanese.

Non-Japanese hoping to become care workers took the certification test for the first time Sunday, while those aspiring to become certified nurses have been applying for the exam since fiscal 2008.

But the low pass rate is prompting the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to consider changing the system.

“We’ve had discussions with experts on the topic since last month,” an official in charge of the issue at the health ministry told The Japan Times on Monday.

A panel has already met twice on how to help foreigners succeed in becoming certified nurses in Japan.

According to ministry statistics, none of the 82 Indonesian applicants passed the nurse test in 2009 and just two of the 195 candidates passed in 2010. In 2011, only 15 of the 285 Indonesian candidates made the grade.

Those from the Philippines are also struggling, with only two passing since 2009.

The government has tried easing the language burden on non-Japanese candidates by listing pronunciations next to difficult kanji.

But the health ministry panel is pondering other ways, including allowing non-Japanese applicants to take the test in English or Indonesian.

The new communication exams, similar to the Japanese language proficiency test administered by the Japan Foundation, are also being explored as a way to ensure non-Japanese nurses can adapt to the new working environment in Japan.

Candidate nurses who come to Japan must have at least two years of professional experience in their home countries and “hold fine expertise as nurses,” said Sachie Shirai, a spokeswoman at Bima Cooperation for Overseas Nurses and Care Workers.

“The only thing they lack is Japanese proficiency — not technical knowledge,” she added in explaining her support for a new testing system.

Shirai, whose organization has aided those aspiring to work in Japan, acknowledged it is reasonable to voice concern about changing the tests to benefit non-Japanese speakers. But she noted that there are ways to remove the language obstacle, including teaching Japanese to candidates before they arrive in Japan.

A system change, however, is not on the horizon in the near term.

Experts at the health panel’s discussion questioned whether a state-held examination would lose its validity if it is translated into another language.

Others voiced concern that key medical information could be lost in translation, something that “will cause anxiety for the patients,” according to the minutes of the discussions.

The panel is scheduled to end its talks in March, but instead of reaching a firm conclusion it will probably just list the diverging opinions, the health official said.

As for the certification test for foreign care workers, no discussions have been held because Sunday’s test was the first.

Japan started accepting nurse and caregiver candidates from the Philippines and Indonesia after the countries reached individual economic partnership agreements with Japan.