At the end of September a first group of 18 refugees from Myanmar arrived in Japan as part of a commendable government initiative to take in roughly 90 such immigrants over the next three years. These members of the Karen ethnic group have been living for many years in a refugee camp in Thailand after escaping persecution in Myanmar. How will they be received in Japan?
Current plans call for a six-month period of orientation into daily life and Japanese-language study, and then placement into Japanese society where the refugees will fend for themselves in finding jobs and places to live. Earlier refugees from Indochina and those involved in assisting them warn of the language barrier, pointing out from their own experience that six months is much too short a period to learn enough Japanese to make one’s own way in Japanese society, especially in a time of tight employment when laborers of Japanese ancestry from South America are leaving Japan.
The bureaucratic handling of another group of foreign workers — Philippine and Indonesian nurses and caretakers who have come to Japan to work under economic partnership agreements with their home countries — does not inspire confidence.
Since the 2008 fiscal year, roughly a thousand nurses and caretakers have started work after six months of Japanese-language study. Under the agreements, nurses have three years to pass the national licensing exam and caretakers, four years. If they have not passed their respective exams within that time period, they must return home. Of the 254 trainee nurses who took the exam this spring, only three, or 1.2 percent, passed.
In August, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry announced some changes for the exams — which are the same ones that Japanese workers must pass. The changes include providing some English medical terms and furigana readings for difficult kanji. Clearly a more fundamental rethinking of the system is called for to integrate such trainees into Japanese institutions.
In addition to bureaucratic inflexibility, a deeper ambivalence would seem to be at work — a reluctance to really open Japan to outsiders despite an intellectual understanding of the need for workers from abroad.