Laughter is often heard from some 40 elderly people who receive day care services at a care home in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, thanks to the presence of a Filipino worker.

“When I speak in English, grandpas seem delighted,” Charito Ito said, revealing her secret for getting elderly people to laugh.

Ito, 38, is married to a Japanese man and is a paid caregiver at Minamisanriku Kings Garden.

She was working at a local fishery processing plant when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Like many others, she lost her job.

According to the Justice Ministry, the three worst-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima had a total of 33,279 foreign residents at the end of 2010. Many were Chinese and Filipino women married to Japanese men, as well as Chinese trainees employed by fishery processing plants.

The twin disasters caused widespread loss of employment opportunities and forced a large number of foreign residents to return to their home countries. As a result, the combined population of foreign residents in the three prefectures had dropped to 29,457 by the end of last June. In Kesennuma, the number had dropped to 265 from 461.

To create new job opportunities for the foreigners who have stayed on in Kesennuma, the city office started seminars in cooperation with support groups to help them obtain entry-level licenses to work at care homes, which were short of staff. Of 31 foreign residents who had received licenses by January 2013, more than 10 are currently working as caregivers.

Ito, who has been working at Minamisanriku Kings Garden for two years, feels the work suits her as she had cared for her mother-in-law, who died five years ago.

Ito married Takao, 64, and came to Japan in 1997. Life in Japan was tough for her because she could not understand Japanese well and had to endure a demanding mother-in-law.

But when her husband’s mother became sick, Ito drove her to and from a hospital as well as fed and bathed her and changed her diapers. The mother-in-law gradually removed her emotional wall against Ito.

While busy with a mountain of work, such as driving and bathing the elderly care recipients, Ito found they enjoy being spoken to in English. During physical exercise, they say “OK” in English when she issues instructions.

Tsukiko Saito, 83, one of the care recipients at Minamisanriku Kings Garden, said, “She is positive whatever she does and makes my visit here enjoyable.”

Kazuko Fujita, head of the care home, said Ito is trusted by the patients and is “an important asset to us.”

In addition to her work at the care home, Ito has set up a group with some 10 Filipino friends to produce a radio program in cooperation with a multi-language station, FMYY, in Kobe.

Ito wants to spread the word about the situation in Kesennuma through the radio program. “Kesennuma is my second home, where I live with my family, and I want to contribute to the reconstruction,” she said.

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