Strict immigration rules may threaten Japan’s future

Her new country needs her, her new employer adores her, and Joyce Anne Paulino, who landed here 14 months ago knowing not a word of the language, can now say in Japanese that she’d like very much to stay. But Paulino, 31, a nurse from the Philippines, worries about the odds. To stay in Japan long-term, she must pass a test that almost no foreigner passes.

For Japan, maintaining economic relevance in the next decades hinges on its ability — and its willingness — to grow by seeking outside help. Japan has long had deep misgivings about immigration and has tightly controlled the ability of foreigners to live and work here.

But with the country’s population expected to fall from 127 million to below 100 million by 2055, Prime Minister Naoto Kan last month took a step toward loosening Japan’s grip on immigration, outlining a goal to double the number of highly skilled foreign workers within a decade.

In Japan, just 1.7 percent of the population (or roughly 2.2 million people) is foreign or foreign-born. Foreigners represent small slices of almost every sector of the economy, but they also represent the one slice of the population with a chance to grow. Japan is on pace to have three workers for every two retirees by 2060.

But the economic partnership program that brought Paulino and hundreds of other nurses and caretakers to Japan has a flaw. Indonesian and Filipino workers who come to care for a vast and growing elderly population cannot stay for good without passing a certification test. And that test’s reliance on high-level Japanese — whose characters these nurses cram to memorize — has turned the test into a de facto language exam.

Ninety percent of Japanese nurses pass the test. This year, three of 254 immigrants passed it. The year before, none of 82 passed.

For immigrant advocates, a pass-or-go-home test with a success rate of less than 1 percent creates a wide target for criticism — especially at a time when Japan’s demographics are increasing the need for skilled foreign labor.

For many officials in the government and the medical industry, however, difficulties with the program point to a larger dilemma confronting a country whose complex language and resistance to foreigners make it particularly tough to penetrate.

Kan’s goal to double the number of skilled foreign workers seems reasonable enough, given that Japan currently has 278,000 college-educated foreign workers — the United States has more than 8 million, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — but it meets some resistance.

An Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll in June asked Japanese about accepting immigrants to “maintain economic vitality.” Twenty-six percent favored the idea. Sixty-five percent opposed it. And the likelihood of substantive changes in immigration policy took a major hit, experts said, when Kan’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan saw setbacks in parliamentary elections this month.

Political analysts now paint a grim picture of a country at legislative impasse. Foreigners such as Paulino find it difficult to get here, difficult to thrive and difficult to stay, and at least for now, Kan’s government will have a difficult time changing any of that.

‘A lack of urgency’

“There’s a lack of urgency or lack of sense of crisis for the declining population in Japan,” said Satoru Tominaga, director of Garuda, an advocacy group for Indonesian nurse and caretaker candidates. “We need radical policy change to build up the number” of such workers. “However, Japan lacks a strong government; if anything, it’s in chaos.”

When Japan struck economic partnership agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines, attracting nurses and caretakers wasn’t the primary objective. Japan sought duty-free access for its automakers to the Southeast Asian market. Accepting skilled labor was just part of the deal.

But by 2025, Japan will need to almost double its number of nurses and care workers, currently at 1.2 million. And because of the test, substandard language skills, not substandard caretaking skills, are keeping the obvious solution from meeting the gaping need.

The 998 Filipino and Indonesian nurses and caretakers who’ve come to Japan since 2008 all have, at minimum, college educations or several years of professional experience. Nurses can stay for three years, with three chances to pass the test. Other caregivers can stay for four years, with one chance to pass. Those who arrive in Japan take a six-month language cram class and then begin work as trainees.

They are allotted a brief period every workday — 45 minutes, in Paulino’s case — for language study. Many also study for hours at night.

“The language skills, that is a huge hurdle for them,” said Kiichi Inagaki, an official at the Japan International Corporation for Welfare Services, which oversees the program. “However, if you go around the hospital, you understand how language is important. Nurses are dealing with medical technicalities. They are talking to doctors about what is important. In order to secure a safe medical system, they need a very high standard of Japanese.”

Advocates for foreign nurses and caregivers do not play down the importance of speaking and understanding Japanese. But they emphasize that the Japanese characters for medical terminology are among the hardest to learn; perhaps some jargon-heavy portion of the certification test, they say, could be given in English or workers’ native language.

A new culture

When Paulino boarded a flight from Manila to Tokyo in May 2009, she had a sense of trepidation and adventure — not that she could express it in Japanese. She saw her mission as a way to make better money and “explore herself,” she said. Her first chance for exploration came onboard, when a meal of rice, which she doesn’t like, came with chopsticks, which she didn’t know how to use.

“All the way to Japan, we were joking about that,” said Fritzie Perez, a fellow Filipino nurse who sat in the same row. “We were saying, ‘Joyce, how are you going to eat?’ ”

Now eight months into her stint at the Tamagawa Subaru nursing home, Paulino feels comfortable speaking and joking with the elderly people she cares for.

“She did have problems initially, especially in the Japanese language, but there’s been so much improvement,” said Keisuke Isozaki, head of caretaking at the home. “She’s not capable of writing things down for the record, but otherwise she’s as capable as any Japanese staffer.”

Paulino said she is nervous about her test, scheduled for January 2013. This month, 33 nurses and caretakers returned to their home countries, discouraged with their chances.

Her friend, Perez, described the language study and the caretaking as “serving two masters at the same time.”

“When I get home, that’s when I study,” Paulino said. “But every time I read my book, I start to fall asleep. It’s bothering me. Because [the test] is only one chance. And I don’t know if I can get it.”