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Annie Watanabe took part last month in a role-playing exercise with other Filipino students, learning both how to feed a bedridden patient and how to be cared for.

The classroom exercise at Total Care Support Co., a nursing-care school in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, is offered for people certified as second-grade “home helpers” or caregivers.

“Simple communication (in Japanese) is not difficult,” said Watanabe, who married a Japanese man 20 years ago. “What is difficult is to explain what kind of nutrition each meal contains, because we don’t know much about Japanese food.”

Through the course, in which instructors occasionally use Japanese-English materials, she learned basic knowledge about nursing care, including Japan’s nursing-care insurance system. She also got to practice helping elderly people take baths and engaged in on-the-job training at a nursing home. The firm’s training program is authorized by local authorities.

Watanabe, a housewife in Higashi Murayama, western Tokyo, was certified by Total Care Support at the end of last month and is now looking for a part-time job at a nursing home near her house.

With the need for caregivers increasing as Japan’s population rapidly ages, a few welfare-related companies are offering training for non-Japanese caregivers, with an eye on future demand growth when Japan starts accepting caregivers from the Philippines under a free-trade agreement.

“We heard from a Filipino businessman here that there are a lot of Filipinos who want to work (in Japan) as home helpers,” said Shinichi Kawabata, who is responsible for the education business at Tokyo-based Total Care Support, which provides health-care support services. “We realized Japan would need foreign caregivers sooner or later, so we set up a course for them.”

Since his company began offering the training course for Filipinos last October, more than 100 Filipino residents have taken part, Kawabara said.

About 30 percent of the participants have gone on to obtain jobs as caregivers at nursing-care facilities, he added. The admission fee for the course is 98,000 yen.

Avance Corp., based in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, began offering a five-month caregiver course for Filipino residents in Nagoya in January, said Akemi Hayashi, who runs the program.

The firm also plans to open a caregiver training course for Brazilian residents in Ichinomiya in August and in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, in September.

An estimated 460,000 home helpers across the country — 80,000 full time and 380,000 part time — worked in 2003 to support 1.16 million elderly people who needed nursing care, according to a recent study by Keiko Shimono, a labor economics professor at Nagoya City University.

She predicts that Japan will need immigrants to cover a shortage in home helpers in the coming decades.

Based on her study, Shimono estimates that as the number of elderly people requiring nursing care rises to 1.56 million in 2025, the supply of part-time home helpers will fall short by roughly 120,000.

“Middle-aged women are projected to be the main workforce in nursing care (in 2025), but many of them will try to find full-time positions and few will want to take the low paying but demanding part-time home helper jobs,” Shimono said, adding that the situation will prompt nursing homes to turn to immigrants.

Language proficiency, especially writing skills, is considered a problem for non-Japanese caregivers.

“About 20 (Filipino) participants in our training course have lived in Japan for about 10 years, so they know about Japanese customs in everyday life,” said Hayashi of Avance. “But writing Japanese is still difficult for them.”

Home helpers need to write daily logs on each elderly person they care for so other welfare workers can understand the conditions of the recipient.

To help its non-Japanese learners, Avance requires them to take 20 hours of classes in Japanese writing and another 20 hours to review what they have learned, in addition to the regular 130 hours of regular classes.

The two firms hope their current business will bear more fruit in the future, when hundreds of Filipinos are expected to come to Japan to work as caregivers under the planned FTA.

Unlike people like Watanabe, those Filipinos will have to obtain government authorization as expert-level caregivers either by passing a qualification exam in Japan or going through a nursing-care training program for more than two years in this country.

Qualified caregivers are required to have wider expertise in nursing care and usually take management posts at nursing homes to instruct junior caregivers like home helpers, according to people in the welfare industry.

“I don’t think our current program can attract a large number of Filipino residents now,” said Kawabata of Total Care Support. “But our current business would help us build a footing” to provide training programs to future immigrants who want to get the government qualification.

The two nations are currently negotiating details of the FTA, including the number of Filipino caregivers who will be allowed into Japan and when Japan will start accepting them.

They are hoping to formally conclude the agreement this summer, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

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