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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
September 28, 2004

Vitalize Japan's Economy with Foreign Workers - Nurses or Entertainers?

Takatoshi ITO (Professor, University of Tokyo)

The negotiation on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between Japan and the Philippines is having a hard time. Whereas the Philippine government has requested Japan to accept their nurses and care persons to be able to work in Japan, the Japanese government has responded by requiring those workers to pass a qualifying examination conducted in Japanese. In addition, Japan has limited the total number of such workers to 100.

It is to an extent understandable to require those workers to pass certain exams, as it would be necessary for nurses to communicate with their patients in Japanese and in order to maintain quality service. But if such stringent conditions are levied, there is no reason to limit the total number of workers to be accepted in the country. Also, the experiences of the applicants in their home countries could be considered so as to cut down the hours of training required in obtaining the required status. Indeed, it is necessary for Japan not only to accept, but also to endeavor to acquire nurses and care persons from abroad in order to sustain and vitalize its economy.

Nurses, qualified caretakers, baby-sitters, and home-helpers are the types of workers becoming increasingly necessary in Japan with its aging population and diminishing number of children. In addition, supplying such workers from abroad would support the willingness of Japanese women to have children as well as maintain their professional careers.

For example, a woman foreign correspondent assigned to Japan can legally bring a Filipino maid to take care of her domestic chores. But a Japanese woman reporter - or a woman of any profession - is not allowed to bring in a home-helper from abroad. Thus there may be many working women who have given up having children because there is no means to take care of household chores or their parents at a reasonable cost. The case of qualified caretakers is even more serious. The job of "caring," such as with care workers, is not listed as a resident status of foreigners in Japanese immigration regulations. Qualified experts in medical fields such as physical therapists and occupational therapists, especially those with a certain level of Japanese proficiency, should not be discriminated against. Rather, these experts should be encouraged to come to Japan, if necessary by supporting their study of the Japanese language. Shortage of doctors and nurses in less populated regions in Japan has already become a serious problem.

In 2000, there were four working people (15 to 64 years old) supporting one retiree in Japan. In 2030 there will be only two workers supporting one retired person. Unless sufficient numbers of workers in the medical and care fields can be secured, deterioration of medical services - including waiting in long lines - as well as a surge in health care insurance premiums is unavoidable.

Some people express concern about increase in crimes as the number of foreigners grows. Analyses of statistics reveal, however, that the increase in crimes by foreigners is due mostly to the increase of foreign students in Japan. Although "students" are classified in the regulations as prohibited from working in Japan, they are, by obtaining a nominal additional permit, allowed to work 30 hours a week to subsidize their tuition. But the scheme is not functioning properly. There are many illegal immigrants disguised as students committing crimes, and the number of such cases is increasing rapidly. Students should be prohibited from taking jobs so as to maintain the quality of their studies and research, and the integrity of foreigners in general. This should help to remove the distorted views toward foreigners already held by many Japanese people. The issue is not whether to accept foreign workers, but rather what sort of foreign workers to accept.

There are already quite a number of foreigners living in Japan. There were 145 thousand foreigners with residential status permitted to work in 2002. Among them, 123 thousand, or 85% of the total, were "Entertainers" such as theatrical performers, dramatic entertainers, singers, dancers, musical performers, and professional athletes. In contrast, there were only 4 (four) "Medical Service Professionals." It might also be worth noting that in this year's "Trafficking in Persons Report" released by the US State Department in June, Japan was listed in the Tier 2 watch list because "Japan does not comply with the minimum standards." Japan is lenient toward "entertainers" coming into the country, but refuses to accept doctors and nurses. It is difficult to see how this serves Japan's national interests.

(The original Japanese article appeared in the September 25, 2004 issue of Weekly Toyo Keizai)

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