In a Japanese-style apartment, Maria Del Bago learns how to properly bow, clean traditional tatami floor-matting and decipher instructions for a high-tech toilet.

But she’s not in Tokyo. She’s 3,000 km away in Manila.

Del Bago, a 37-year-old computer science graduate who previously worked as a housekeeper for an Arab family, is one of 26 experienced cleaners selected by staffing company Pasona Group Inc. to undergo more than 400 hours of language and skills training in the Philippine capital. They are set to begin work in Japan in the spring.

“I’d like to think I’m a faster learner,” Del Bago said. “I also trust that the training that I get will let me adjust easier and avoid being culture shocked.”

The program is the latest step toward opening up Japan to more foreigners, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government seeks ways to counter a shrinking labor force that threatens to hamstring the world’s third-biggest economy. But with a majority of Japanese opposed to a mass influx into a largely homogeneous society, the government and the firms involved have adopted an exacting admissions process.

‘Step forward’

“It’s inadequate,” Robby Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co., said of the housekeeper policy. “However, the fact that they’re doing it at all is a piece of progress. Given what’s happening in the rest of the labor market, it’s at least one step forward.”

The admission of cleaners from overseas — first to Kanagawa and Osaka and later to Tokyo — is aimed at making housekeeping services affordable for the middle classes and getting more Japanese women into the workforce. These women are needed to help buck a current trend that could see the labor force of about 65 million collapsing by more than 40 percent by 2060, according to a government panel projection.

Heizo Takenaka, a former economy minister who now serves on a government panel on special economic zones and as chairman/director at Pasona, sees the housekeeping program as Japan’s first serious attempt at bringing in the workers needed to put the economy on track. While immigration opponents fear a rise in crime if rules are eased, he cited Singapore as an example of a country with many foreigners and low crime.

“This won’t change things drastically,” Takenaka said of the housekeeping program. “It is a very Japanese way of doing things. We couldn’t have them flooding in like they do in Hong Kong.”

Humility wanted

Under the new visa category created for special zones, cleaners must be employed full time by agencies, rather than individuals, and be paid as much as their Japanese colleagues. Rather than living with a family, recruits must be provided with their own accommodation. They must also speak basic Japanese.

“Attitude is as important as skills,” said Contessa Tadena, a trainer with Magsaysay Global Services Inc. in Manila. “I teach my students the value of honesty, respect and politeness. You have to be kind as a whole, aside from being hard-working.” Two participants have already been rejected from the course for failing to show sufficient humility.

Abe touted the idea of foreign cleaners and elderly-care workers in a speech at Davos in January 2014. But with employers required to jump through so many hoops, it has taken three years to get the first couple of dozen workers ready even though there is no set limit on how many can enter.

Delays, regulations

The delay occurred in part because 2014 was an election year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said last week.

“We are doing this for the first time, so there was some coordination,” Suga said. “Anyway, at last it will start next month. It is our responsibility to create a system that can be widely used.”

Overregulation risks stifling the project, according to Yuki Takahashi, a founder of Tokyo-based housekeeping company Bears KK, which also plans to employ a handful of staff from the Philippines.

“If the regulations aren’t relaxed, this will be a loss-making venture for the companies concerned,” Takahashi said. “Japanese housekeepers don’t need qualifications — if someone is of good character we can hire and train them. Why can’t we do the same with the foreign workers?”

While maids are commonplace in Asian cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, outsourcing chores has largely been the preserve of the rich in Japan — one reason why many women have to give up their careers after giving birth. While the ratio of women in work has risen to about 50 percent from 48 percent when Abe came to power in 2012, many hold poorly paid part-time positions.

Maid shortage

Japanese citizens currently aren’t allowed to employ foreign maids. A small number of “highly skilled” expatriates are allowed to bring foreign housekeepers into Japan, with about 1,000 such domestic workers living in the country as of June. This compares with about 300,000 in Hong Kong, whose total population is about half that of Tokyo alone.

While the number of foreign workers in Japan doubled to a record of 908,000 between 2008 and 2015, many are employed in manufacturing, where they have relatively little contact with the native population. Net migration was just under 100,000 people in 2015 — the highest in 14 years.

Complex regulations could also hamper a fresh attempt to bring in more foreign elderly-care workers. The health ministry projects a potential deficit of 377,000 workers by 2025 — prompting the government to expand a controversial “trainee” program for foreigners that critics say has conditions tantamount to forced labor.

Still, Miyoko Miyazawa, an adviser at Eisei hospital in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji who supervises its use of foreign workers, said Japan has no option but to use the trainee system to accept more overseas caregivers.

“The labor shortage is really becoming serious,” she said. “Some facilities can’t even open for a lack of staff.”

Among her success stories is John Denmark Pineda, a 31-year-old nurse. He came to Japan from Manila in 2009 and is now a popular staff member at the hospital, chatting to elderly patients in a mixture of Japanese and English.

Strict regulations mean that only about 2,600 nurses and caregivers from Southeast Asia are working in Japan. Pineda, now married to a Japanese citizen and aiming to pass the country’s notoriously difficult nursing qualification, said that migrant workers should be allowed to play a bigger role.

“It might sound cheeky, but we foreigners are very keen and hardworking,” he said. “If more want to come, I think they should be accepted.”

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