Graying Japan Needs Foreign Caregivers, but Language Barrier Poses Challenge

Society

Supply of Caregivers Far Short of Demand in Ultra-aging Japan

Japan today is already confronting the social repercussions of a superaged society. The bulk of its baby-boomer generation will be nearing the age of 75 or older by 2025. According to the estimate of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, around 2.45 million workers will be needed in the nursing-care sector by that year, whereas the supply will probably not exceed 2.11 million—leaving a shortfall of 340,000 caregivers.

The Pokka-Poka geriatric health services facility in Shiraoka, Saitama Prefecture, provides one example of efforts underway in the nursing-care sector to respond to the chronic labor shortage. One of the caregivers at the facility is Wada Thomas, a 17-year-old born to a Philippine mother and Japanese father. Wada, who always greets the elderly residents of the facility with a smile, moved to Japan last year.

Seventeen-year-old caregiver Wada Thomas, who came to Japan from the Philippines.

Relying Solely on Japanese Staff No Longer an Option

The Taijukai Group, which runs the Pokka-Poka facility, has been hiring Japanese-Filipinos like Wada in response to the labor shortage. Wada, for his part, has taken energetically to the job, which includes such tasks as feeding and bathing the elderly residents of the facility.

Workers from overseas like Wada have become essential since “it has become impossible to secure enough staff by relying solely on Japanese staff,” as the director of the Taijukai Group, Inoue Naoki, points out. Indeed, at the Pokka-Poka facility there were only five Japanese applicants among a recent round of applicants, all of whom were hired.

One of the new Japanese employees is 18-year-old Tsukamoto Yurika. She was attracted to the profession because, she says, “even though there are more fashionable jobs out there, it’s interesting to come into contact with all sorts of people and exchange opinions with them.” She underscores not just the challenges of the job, but also the enjoyment and satisfaction that can be gained from it, suggesting that people “experience working at a caregiving facility at least once to see if it suits them as a future career.”

Eighteen-year-old Tsukamoto Yurika helping a resident at the Pokka-Poka facility.

Wada was hired as a Japanese citizen, not a foreign worker, but an increasing number of workers at caregiving facilities have come from overseas through economic partnership agreements or Japan’s foreign trainee system. The stated rationale for those programs, however, are to accept foreigners who are seeking training, not to welcome foreign workers on a long-term basis.

Wada’s tasks at the facility are wide-ranging, including serving meals and bathing residents.

But the severe labor shortages in such sectors as nursing care have compelled Japan to begin loosening its restrictions on foreign workers. Starting in April 2019, a new work status will be established for sectors including agriculture and construction, as well as nursing care. 

Inoue has high expectations for this new type of work visa, which is intended for foreign workers with specialized skills and a certain level of Japanese language ability.

Overcoming the Communication Barrier

When it comes to nursing care, the most vital skill for caregivers is to be able to communicate in a way that creates an emotional connection with the elderly care recipients. One major challenge for caregivers from other countries is to acquire the Japanese-style communication skills they need to express sympathy and appreciation.

Up to now, around half of the workers of Filipino origin employed by the Taijukai Group have ended up leaving the job as a result of an inability to effectively communicate in Japanese. Even some of the overseas staff with Japanese parentage, who have a certain level of Japanese language ability, have been frustrated by the language barrier.  

“Our responsibility,” notes Inoue, “is to provide the linguistic and cultural training necessary to foster our staff from abroad. Since they came all the way to Japan, we owe it to them to give serious thought to the sort of support we can provide them so that they can work alongside their Japanese coworkers with a sense of pride.”

Addressing the labor shortage is a pressing issue, but if the focus is just on securing numbers, without putting systems in place to ensure future sustainability in the system, there is a danger that things will break down.

A visit to the Pokka-Poka facility in Saitama Prefecture brings to light how those involved in nursing-care sector are exploring ways to make better use of foreign workers and help them accustom themselves to the Japanese workplace.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on September 26, 2018. Written by Fuji TV City News Department and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism correspondent Satake Jun. Translated by Nippon.com.)

 

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