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Japan Recruits Foreign Nurses to Care for Elderly

Japan faces a nursing shortage. The nation has the world's oldest population but not enough young people to help care for them. Now Japan is loosening up its immigration policies and turning to foreign nurses to help make up for that deficit.

Mila Bustalino has worked many jobs during her 20 years living in Japan. After migrating from the Philippines, she cleaned houses, washed dishes and babysat for wealthy families so that she could send money to her own family back home.

But for the past two years she has worked at a nursing home, taking care of elderly Japanese. She gives a few examples of what caregivers do.

"Serving them their food snacks, giving them a bath, so our main reason, to make the old people happy," she said.

Soon, Bustalino may have more Filipino co-workers.

In May, around 300 trained nurses and caregivers from the Philippines will arrive in Japan and begin working at hospitals and homes for the elderly.

But their recruitment, which is allowed under a free-trade agreement Tokyo signed with Manila three years ago, has come under fire from the Japan Nursing Association. It says the Filipinos might not have sufficient training or understanding of Japanese culture to work as caregivers. Plus, it says, they will take jobs away from skilled Japanese nurses.

But many of the imported workers may wind up doing basic care-giving jobs in nursing homes - bathing and feeding patients. The pay for this work will far exceed that of trained nurses working the Philippines, but many labor analysts say most Japanese do not want this type of low-paying, low-skilled job.

Martin Schultz, senior economist at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, says Japan needs its young workforce in higher paying professions, to increase the tax base that goes to support senior citizens.

"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," he said.

But Japanese nurses are not the only ones who are cautious about inviting Filipinos to work here.

Marian Tanizaki is director of the Philippines Center, a support group for migrant workers in Tokyo. She worries that Filipino nurses will have few opportunities to advance their careers in Japan and just be regarded as cheap labor.

"My concern, being a Filipino, is that too difficult for Filipinos. Although, I am not undermining the intellectual capacity of these Filipino nurses, but I think they are better off in English-speaking countries where they can express their talents, their abilities and they are freer to work and they will be happy," she said.

Caregiver Mila Bustalino says those concerns are exaggerated. She notes the Filipino nurses will receive language training and says they can adjust easily to their new environment.

She adds that the salary here makes up for any of the problems the Filipino workers might encounter.

"If you have the courage or interest to learn more, come to Japan, you will get more money," she said.

If Japan's experiment in allowing foreign nurses to work here does not work out, there may be other options in a few years. The government is supporting research to create highly skilled, care-giving robots that could start working at nursing homes within five years.