KESENNUMA, MIYAGI PREF. – Like many Kesennuma residents who worked in the fisheries industry on Miyagi Prefecture’s coast, Charito Ito lost her job when the processing firm she had worked at for 14 years was wiped out by tsunami last March.
While many residents are still living on employment insurance and face uncertain futures, Ito, a 38-year-old Filipino, and other foreign nationals have landed jobs as caregivers for the city’s large elderly population, through the support of nonprofit groups and volunteers.
“I’m going to do my best to become a good caregiver to repay the people who have helped us and gave us this opportunity,” said Ito, who started work at a care facility in January.
Among the foreign nationals living in Tohoku’s coastal areas, Chinese and Filipinos form two of the largest communities. Many worked in the fisheries industry, which in recent years has been badly affected by a shortage of workers as local populations rapidly age and shrink.
But whereas many Chinese worked as trainees at fish processing plants, the Filipinos are mostly women who married Japanese men and settled in small communities.
Most of the Filipino women interviewed by The Japan Times in Kesennuma said the tsunami spared their families and homes, but they became unemployed when the fish processing businesses they worked for were all destroyed by the tsunami and were surviving on employment insurance.
Women made up a large proportion of the industry’s workforce, and with only about 20 percent of the city’s fish companies back in business, and even then on a very limited scale, women are having a harder time than men finding alternative employment.
“We’ve gone to Hello Work (job services offices) to look for work, but job offers such as removing debris are mostly limited to men, and except for caring for the elderly, there is no recruitment of women,” Ito said.
But before they could work as caregivers, the Filipinos needed to undergo training and become certified.
The women were assisted by the Japan Association for Refugees, one of the nonprofit organizations that supported foreigners in disaster zones. Among other aid, the association delivered relief goods and offered advice on the various administrative and legal issues the Filipinos had to deal with in the aftermath of 3/11.
According to JAR spokeswoman Shiho Tanaka, limited reading and writing skills in Japanese are a major obstacle preventing foreigners in the region finding work, as they mostly pick up Japanese informally, often by ear.
After assessing the women’s Japanese-language skills and confirming they were committed to becoming caregivers, JAR started offering intensive language-training classes last April. The first nine women started studying to become caregivers in September.
So far, a total of 24 Filipino, Chinese and Chilean women from Kesennuma and the municipalities of Rikuzentakata and Ofunato, in neighboring Iwate Prefecture, have participated in the program. The first group completed the course and started working for day care centers and retirement homes as early as December.
Working as a caregiver is far from easy. The job involves various challenges and responsibilities, and covers everything from serving meals to the elderly, taking their temperatures, helping them bathe and change clothes, and even changing diapers.
Their physical condition, medication and diet, as well as their characters, vary widely. Caregivers thus need to be able to communicate fluently with them and to pay careful attention to their physical and mental state.
Despite the demands their new jobs involve, the women say they find the work fulfilling and rewarding.
“In my previous job, I was working at an assembly line dealing with saury. But now, I deal with people and their feelings,” said Cristina Konno, 37, who in late December became the first of the women to be employed at a care facility.
“There’s lots of communication, and it feels nice when the elderly thank me for my help,” she said.
“And though we are Filipinos, we can do this job (like Japanese). I’m sure that our employers are worried because it’s their first time to have foreigners working for them. I’m grateful they are giving us this chance.”
Maria Sugawara, 41, said she enjoys taking care of the elderly. In her previous job she carved tuna all day long, and by the end of her shift her shoulders would ache.
“Working with elderly people also requires strength, for example to help move them, but at least the rooms are warm. The job at the processing plant was really cold. And it’s fun talking to people,” Sugawara said.
The women all said they fear another tsunami may engulf the area, another reason they don’t want to return to their old processing plants by the sea. Some still avoid going anywhere near the bay.
Working with the elderly also has made them determined to make the most of their youth, they said.
“The town was washed away, and so many lives were lost. And we can never say that tsunami won’t come again,” Konno said. “So from here, I want to spend my life being useful to others. I don’t mind if it’s just in a small way, but that is really what I hope to do.”
The foreign caregivers said they plan to meet once a month to share their experiences and tips, to develop their skills and become better at their jobs.
They also hope their example will inspire other foreigners to consider becoming caregivers.
“We don’t want to be the only ones who were given this opportunity. We want others to have similar chances. We want to be good models for others,” Ito said.