Once a week in a classroom with a view of Tokyo Skytree, Filipino nurses study in a relaxed environment. Under an initiative spearheaded by volunteer organization Abot Kamay, students learn nursing care from employees of care institutions, study Japanese with language education specialists and engage in convivial conversation with retirees.

But this study group fulfills an urgent need: under the crunch for care workers felt by institutions across Japan — a crunch caused by Japan’s declining population, young workers avoiding blue-collar jobs and the coronavirus pandemic — thousands of Filipino workers strive to pass Japan’s national nursing certification. With certification comes a stable, longer-term visa and a higher salary. The price is a difficult, often thankless job in the heart of a deadly, seemingly never-ending pandemic.

“Once you attain the certificate, you can renew your visa as much as you want,” says Reiko Ogawa, a professor at Chiba University researching migrant care workers. “The other options for such workers have no pathway to permanent residency. This certificate operates like a magnet to attract people to the care field.”