Does Japan really want to accept foreign caregivers?

This question, which has dogged the rapidly graying nation for years, continues to loom over a government program to bring in caregivers under bilateral economic partnership agreements.

Japan opened its doors to foreign care workers in 2008, when, via an EPA with Indonesia, it accepted 104 people to work in the nation’s nursing homes to assist the elderly. Subsequent EPAs with the Philippines and Vietnam paved the way for the start in 2009 and 2014, respectively, of similar programs, through which a total of 1,500 caregivers have so far been accepted.

But the government doggedly has maintained that these caregivers were brought in to “strengthen economic cooperation” under the free trade deals, not to fill manpower shortages in the nursing care sector.

As such, their raison d’etre in Japan has always been ambiguous, experts say.

Yasuhiro Yuki, professor of welfare policy at Shukutoku University in Chiba Prefecture, says care facility operators had wrongly expected them to stay in Japan indefinitely, when the system was simply not designed that way.

“I think the caregivers have succeeded in serving the original purpose of personnel exchange,” Yuki said. “But care facility operators in Japan had hoped they would stay on as care workers. . . . They never understood that the government accepted the workers in exchange for lower tariffs on cars and bananas.”

EPA caregivers, despite being licensed as nurses back home, must pass the state qualification exam in Japan to be licensed as kaigo fukushi shi (nursing care specialists) at the end of the four-year EPA program in Japan, if they hope to continue working thereafter.

Every year, only around half of the EPA workers who take the exam — which is held only in Japanese — pass. If they do, they are allowed to stay and their visas are renewable, but those who fail are sent back home.

In response to criticism that the exam’s hurdles are unrealistically and unnecessarily high, the government has tweaked the test, attaching hiragana to all the kanji, introducing a little bit of English and extending the test time for EPA applicants.

Also, since 2012, the government has given a second chance to those who fail the exam, out of “diplomatic consideration,” according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Instead of being immediately repatriated, EPA caregivers can now stay in Japan for one more year to prepare for a second chance at the exam “as an exceptional measure.” But even then, more than a third of those who pass anyway go home, according to the labor ministry.

Yuki, who got involved in the one-year, pre-arrival training program for Vietnamese caregivers at the request of the Foreign Ministry, said foreign applicants mostly see their stint in Japan as a high-paying job that lasts just a few years, after which they can return home and easily find jobs as translators or tour guides for Japanese visitors and businesses, using the language ability acquired under the EPA program.

This, Yuki said, has left nursing care facility operators disenchanted, especially since the majority of the workers have been highly motivated and proved themselves to be valuable staff at care homes.

Yas Idei, a journalist who has covered foreign labor issues extensively, called the EPA program a failure.

“The government accepted people under EPAs without making it clear whether it wants to welcome foreign caregivers (as a long-term source of labor),” he said. “The minor tweaks of the qualification exam might have helped a few dozen others pass it, but that gives no impact on the gap in the labor market, where the government says Japan will be short 300,000 caregivers by 2025.”

Idei said the government intentionally set the hurdle too high for EPA workers to discourage them from settling in Japan, noting that 3 in 4 Japanese working at care facilities don’t have the same state qualification.

According to Idei, Japan needs to have a serious debate about how many of the 300,000 care-worker slots it wants to fill with non-Japanese, now that two new systems for bringing in foreign caregivers — through the technical training program and a new visa status for such professionals — are being planned.

Germany and some other European countries are also trying to recruit Asian caregivers, with their governments investing heavily in language education, Idei said, noting that, in contrast, Taiwan has imported some 200,000 caregivers as cheap labor, forsaking quality over quantity.

“First, Japan needs to decide if it wants to accept caregivers. If it does, the country should also discuss how to make itself an appealing labor market for them, ditching the self-conceited idea that simply by opening doors, good talent will flow in,” he said.

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