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Gov't plan to accept more foreigners in nursing care generates excitement, concern

A foreign student practices changing a diaper on a life-size doll at Gunma Paz Professional Care Workers Training College in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, on Oct. 17, 2018. (Mainichi/Naoki Sugi)

SHIBUKAWA, Gunma -- At Gunma Paz Professional Care Workers Training College, students from foreign countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka practice their nursing care skills on life-size dolls.

"Is it all right if I remove your clothing?" one asks.

"Please allow me to check your diaper, OK?" another says.

Some 40 percent of the students at this school in Shibukawa, a city in the eastern Japan prefecture of Gunma, are foreign nationals. Operators of schools like this one now have both expectations and worries for their business prospect as the government intends to welcome more foreign workers for industries facing acute labor shortage.

The Ministry of Justice plans to introduce the new open-door policy through revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, which they plan to submit to the extraordinary session of the Diet starting Oct. 24. The legal changes are designed primarily to establishing new residency statuses for foreign nationals so that they can work in 10 or more industries such as construction and farming. Nursing care is one of the candidate sectors for the measure.

With these revisions, schools that train students to become nationally certified care workers are hoping for increased demand amid their already growing enrollment of foreign students. But there are also concerns that those changes may reduce the number of foreign students at these schools. The new residency statuses would potentially allow foreigners to stay in Japan for a certain period of time even without national certification as care workers.

Motivations of foreign students attending the Gunma Paz Professional Care Workers Training College include the prospect of a longer stay in Japan, like in the case of Rangi Wathsala, a 28-year-old Sri Lankan woman who enrolled in April. "Studying to obtain national certification as a nursing care worker allows me to learn a lot of high-quality skills. It also lets me obtain residency as a certified care worker, with which I can then stay in Japan for a long time," she said.

There are few nursing care facilities in Sri Lanka, but she believes that in the future, the demand for the service may rise back home if Sri Lankan society ages in the way Japanese society has. "In the future, I want to return to my country and build a nursing care facility."

According to the Japan Association of Training Institutions for Certified Care Workers, there are around 360 vocational schools, junior colleges and four-year colleges nationwide that have care worker training courses. Only 17 foreign nationals matriculated at those schools in the 2014 academic year, but the figure had jumped 70-fold to 1,142 students in the 2018 academic year, comprising one-sixth of all enrolled students at those schools.

The surge occurred following the introduction of the "nursing care" residency status in September 2017. The new status allows foreign students to work in Japan after they have completed at least two years of study at vocational schools or other institutions and obtained national certification as care workers.

The government is aiming to establish two new residency statuses during the extraordinary Diet session: one for a maximum of five years is intended for those that take jobs that require a certain level of knowledge and experience, and the other is a renewable visa for those that take jobs that require sophisticated skills.

The two residency statuses are intended for "industrial fields with personnel shortages that should secure human resources." Jobs-to-applicants ratios by job category are expected to be taken into account in the final selection. In the nursing care industry, 4.07 job offers existed for each job seeker as of August, far higher than the 1.46 among all job types.

Under the government plan, applicants for the new residency statuses would be required to pass exams on industry-specific skills and Japanese language as stipulated by the ministry or agency in charge. In the case of nursing care workers, passing the ministry tests will qualify them for a five-year stay, even if they are not nationally certified. Technical intern trainees with three years of experience as nursing care workers can also have their residency status switched to five-years without taking the tests.

The new system's outline has been revealed by the Ministry of Justice, but much about it has yet to be determined, including the contents of exams by industry.

There are many unknowns about the bill and the proposed system that Tamotsu Yamaguchi, who is on the board of directors of the Japan Association of Training Institutions for Certified Care Workers, cannot help but worry. "The number of foreign students who aim to attend schools that train care workers may drop," he said. There is, however, a possibility that the number of foreigners who aspire to obtain national certification as they work in nursing care will increase. But, Yamaguchi added, "Honestly, I can't predict what kind of impacts the possible changes will have."

(Japanese original by Naoki Sugi, Maebashi Bureau)

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