As Japan gropes for solutions to the imminent labor shortage amid the rapidly graying population, the failure of a private-sector project to import nurses is a bitter reminder of the hurdles involved in attracting and keeping foreign professionals here.

In 1990, Mototsugu Arao, chairman of the Hyogo Prefecture-based hospital group Senreikai, embarked on a bold experiment to bring in Filipino nurses, as immigration laws were revised to open Japan's heavily protected medical sector to foreigners -- albeit only for four years in the case of nurses.

But because Japan does not recognize other countries' medical licenses, the 13 nurses who joined the project first had to pass a Japanese-language proficiency test. Next they had to complete a three-year curriculum at a nursing school and then pass a national exam to again be licensed as a nurse.