Japan is facing a nursing shortage.
The nation has the world’s oldest population but not enough young people to help care for them.
Now the country is turning to foreign nurses to help make up for that deficit.
But not everyone is convinced this is a good career move for these caregivers.
From Tokyo, reporter Jason Strother has more.
More and more of Japan’s senior citizens are calling places like the Shisei Gakusha home. It’s a care facility with a few hundred full time residents. Another thousand elderly come here during the day.
The retired Reverend Job Uchida, age 80, has been living here for three years. He didn’t want to be a burden to his children and their family and because of his bad heart and hearing, he couldn’t live alone.
“My family doesn’t want me to live on my own, so a friend of mine introduced me here. To get old, is very lonely.”
The nursing homes president Masaki Hashimoto says Japanese families traditionally take care of their elderly relatives. But these days, families are much smaller and women, who used to stay at home, now work. He says they have no choice but to place their parents into homes.
“Even though Japan is number one for life expectancy, unfortunately a long life does not necessarily lead to happiness because of the nursing care system, we try our best to resolve this problem.”
According to government figures, twenty percent of Japan’s population is aged 65 and older. But the nation also has a record low in the number of citizens at age twenty.
Analysts say that means Japan has neither the tax base to support its graying population or the workforce needed to care for them.
Martin Schultz is a senior economist at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo.
“Japan society has a major aging problem. This means there needs to be services for aged people. This is usually not a high wage, high productivity sector, in many countries this sector is covered by immigration, by low wage immigrants.”
But Schultz says xenophobia prevents Japan from following that economic model.
“The Japanese society also doesn’t like low skilled, low waged foreigners in its society. The Japanese are very afraid of social tensions and growing crime rates.”
But with few alternatives to provide care for its seniors, in recent years Japan has begun offering work visas to a relatively small number of foreign nurses.
In May, just under 300 trained nurses from the Philippines will arrive here to receive language training before being placed in hospitals and care centers.
Their recruitment, which is a part of a free trade agreement Tokyo signed with Manila, has come under fire from the Japan Nursing Association. They say these Filipino nurses might not have sufficient training or understanding of Japanese culture to work here.
Japanese groups aren’t alone in their concern for these foreign caregivers.
Marian Tazinaka is director of the Philippines Center, a support group for Filipino workers in Tokyo.
She says Filipino nurses are better off going somewhere else, where they won’t have a language barrier and won’t be treated as cheap labor.
“If they work here there is no guarantee, like in Canada if they work in Canada, after two years they have a choice of having a residency, they can get their family, they can get their children. But in Japan, no, you will become only a working resident.”
Q. They won’t be able to bring their family here?
“No, no, you can’t, very, very difficult.“
But some foreign nurses here say concerns about Filipino nurses are over exaggerated.
Fifty-nine year old Filipino Lourdes Salvan, worked in a Japanese hospital for seven years as a midwife, and two years as a private caregiver. She says the language and cultural differences never prevented her from doing her job.
“I don’t think so, because it’s not the language alone, it’s the way of your service that matters much. Actions speak louder than words, if you can’t express it in Japanese, you do your action and they will understand.”
There are efforts being made to get more young Japanese interested in entering the nursing profession.
The Shisei Gakusha nursing home is currently training recent college graduates to become caregivers.
It’s hoped that students like 23 year old Moiko Sasaki will fill the nursing void so that Japan will not have to rely on foreigners to take care of their elderly.
“I have always had a good relationship with the elderly people in my family. I see that for many old people in hospitals, they don’t get so much care from nurses. I don’t want my own grandparents, or even myself to be in that situation.”
Shisei Gakusha’ president, Masaki Hashimoto, is optimistic that more Japanese will start careers as caregivers, especially now as other sectors are cutting back on their workforce. He has reservations about the current deal with Filipino nurses, but concedes there are not many other options at the moment.
“I don’t think this current immigration system is designed to fix the problem in the longer term, but this nursing shortage cannot be resolved by Japanese alone, without the foreign staff there just are not enough people to take care of the elderly.”