Foreign nursing care workers face language barrier in Japan
“I would like to hear a song in Japanese.” The request was made by Marliezl Toledo, a certified care worker, who spoke kindly to a female resident of a nursing home early last month. When the woman, in her 70s, sang a children’s song, Toledo smiled and applauded.
Toledo, who works at the Care Port Itabashi intensive nursing care home for the elderly in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, was an elementary school teacher in the Philippines, her home country.
The 32-year-old came to Japan five years ago under an economic partnership agreement (EPA) that permits foreign nursing care staff to work in Japan. The project was launched in fiscal 2008.
As of this fiscal year, 2,740 people have come to Japan from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam under such agreements.
When the resident who sang for Toledo entered the institution, she was emotionally unstable, but after meeting the care worker, she settled down. “She’s a foreigner, but when I’m with her, I feel very safe,” she said with a relaxed expression on her face.
Toledo’s Japanese, which was limited to a few words when she arrived in Japan, has improved markedly. “I’m entrusted with the same work as a Japanese person, and my job is rewarding,” she said.
Kazuo Koshimizu, the 46-year-old head of the institution, has a high opinion of the five staff members hired under EPAs, saying, “They are extremely competent, indispensable personnel who could start work right away.”
As of September this year, the ratio of job openings to job seekers was 2.52 for nursing care jobs, far higher than the average of 1.15 for all occupations, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
One estimate shows there will be a shortfall of about 380,000 nursing care workers by fiscal 2025. It is hoped that foreign nationals on the Technical Intern Training Program will take over some of these responsibilities. With the enactment of a new law on Nov. 18, “nursing care” will be added to the list of occupations covered by the program, which hitherto focused on work dealing with manufacturing or processing work.
Japanese language skills
However, technical interns do not need to have nursing care qualifications, unlike those accepted under EPAs. They are only required to have a language ability of Level N4 of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), enough to handle simple daily conversations.
The head of a different Tokyo nursing care institution warned, “N4 Japanese is not good enough in a nursing care setting, where specialist terms are tossed back and forth.”
Several Filipinos, who obtained permanent residency in Japan after marrying or other reasons, who have married and obtained permanent residency in Japan work in this home. After living in Japan for more than 10 years, they have no difficulty with everyday conversation, but are poor at reading and writing.
About 10 years ago, when they had just begun to work at the home, there were several cases in which they misread the names of residents written on labels for particular meals. Meals are allocated depending on the person they are for, with some in jelly form and others regular meals. Due to the misreading of names, some people received the wrong meals.
Even now, Japanese staff members are responsible for administering drugs and filling out nursing care records. “Mistakes in nursing care can be a matter of life or death,” the head of the institution said.
Bearing in mind these concerns, the government requires an N3 grade of the JLPT which includes the ability to understand moderately complex texts, as a condition of continuing on the training program for a second year. Those who do not reach this standard are obliged to return home. However, the N3 grade is difficult to achieve, and it is hard for trainees to pass the exam while working.
Nursing care operators are now competing fiercely to recruit promising technical interns.
In late October, Teruyuki Satake, 52, the president of Kohokushinkokai, a social welfare corporation that runs two intensive nursing care homes in Shiga Prefecture, gave instructions over the phone: “Make sure they keep studying Japanese.”
The person receiving the instructions was a female staff member at a Japanese language school in Manila.
Anticipating the expansion of the Technical Intern Training Program, in July last year the corporation opened a language school to teach 12 men and women who had graduated from universities or nursing colleges in the Philippines who hope to become technical interns. Tuition is free, and the cost of running the school is several million yen a year, but according to Satake, “This expenditure is necessary to secure high-quality staff.”
An operator in Chiba Prefecture issued informal offers for technical intern positions to eight women in Vietnam in September last year. It has been remitting ¥15,000 to each of them every month to pay for their Japanese language school fees. “For the past five or six years in Japan, we often do not receive a single phone call after placing a job advertisement. We can’t survive without relying on foreigners,” a representative of the operator said.
Shukutoku University Prof. Yasuhiro Yuki, an expert on social security issues, sounded a note of alarm about placing too much reliance on technical interns. “If many technical interns with low language abilities and nursing care skills come to work in this area, the safety of those receiving care may be put at risk,” he said.
“The government should not leave it up to business operators to ensure study time for technical interns. Rather, it should push ahead with devising rules and providing support, such as dispatching instructors,” Yuki said./rga
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