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Despite staff shortages, foreign care workers still face barriers to jobs in Japan

Reia Zafra, from the Philippines, serves a spoonful of sweet jelly to a woman with dementia at a care home in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, on July 3, 2018. (Mainichi).

TATEBAYASHI, Gunma -- "I'm going to serve a sweet jelly. If you don't eat it quickly, I'll gobble it up," says Filipino care worker Reia Zafra in a gentle voice. It is early July, and the 50-year-old is tending to a woman with dementia at a care home in this eastern Japan city, where she has worked for about six months.

Facility head Mutsumi Onoda tells the Mainichi Shimbun that the Filipino worker "has a naturally bright and gentle disposition Japanese people lack. Thanks to her, there are a lot more smiles on the faces of our residents." According to Onoda, smiling not only gives the residents a little exercise but also seems to reduce their anxiety levels, as fewer of them now wake up in the middle of the night.

Zafra also began providing foot and stomach massages not in the standard care worker manual, saying it was simply something she wanted to do for the residents. The result: the residents have improved bowel function, and more can make it to the washroom without an accident. The care worker also noticed some residents had problems with dry skin and began applying moisturizing cream. She has, in short, become an indispensable part of the home's staff.

However, the facility was the fifth Zafra applied to. The previous four all rejected her. Despite the already severe staff crunch at Japan's care homes, only a handful will hire foreigners.

The biggest barrier to employment for Zafra was reading and writing Japanese kanji characters. She has been in the country for about 20 years and has permanent residency, and although she speaks conversational Japanese with no problem, she still finds kanji difficult. Zafra has to read and fill out care records, but it takes her a lot of time.

At her present workplace, she gets help with this task from her Japanese coworkers, who also include phonetic readings for the pictographic kanji characters when they fill in their own records so Zafra can read the entries. Zafra commits the time she's freed from this administrative duty to speak with the residents as much as she can.

"The quality of care work depends on relations between human beings," says Zafra. "Even if my Japanese is bad, what's most important is reaching (the residents') hearts. Put another way, even if my Japanese was good, it wouldn't mean a thing if I didn't put my heart into the work."

However, many foreign care workers quit the profession when they hit the language barrier. All of the about 10 Filipinos who came to Japan around the same time as Zafra hoping to do care work have left one by one, heading instead to other countries with aging societies such as the United States and Australia. English is one of the Philippines' official languages, so there is no need to worry about communication barriers in other English-speaking nations. Zafra even has an acquaintance who became the head of a care home in the U.S. after obtaining the local qualifications.

Expanding acceptance of foreign workers is one of the government's strategies for solving Japan's care staff shortage. However, if the system for coming to and working in Japan is too cumbersome, this plan will likely come to nothing.

"There are a lot of care facilities in Japan. And there are a lot of foreigners who like elderly people. But if we're told 'You can't read kanji so you can't work here,' everyone will go to a different country," says Zafra. She adds that she is part of that "everyone."

As a permanent resident, Zafra has no legal restrictions on where she can work in Japan, but employment options are very limited for foreigners seeking nursing jobs without this status.

The first wave of foreigners hoping to land care worker jobs arrived under bilateral economic partnership agreements, the first being with Indonesia. Starting in 2008, a program was set up to bring in Indonesians to do on-the-job training and study at Japanese facilities, with the goal of passing the national care worker qualification exam. This was expanded under agreements with the Philippines and Vietnam, and so far 4,302 people have trained in Japan under the program. More than 700 have passed the national exam.

In November last year, "care worker" was added to the list of professions eligible for visas under the technical trainee program, which is intended to equip foreigners with Japanese technical knowhow to take back to their home countries. A specific "care worker" residency category was also created. The government is furthermore looking to set up a new five-year residency status in spring 2019 aimed at people who have completed their technical trainee program stints or those who have a certain level of Japanese language skills.

(Japanese original by Naoki Sugi, Maebashi Bureau)

This is Part 3 of a series.

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