TOKYO—It was hard enough being transplanted into a new culture. Being hobbled by a completely alien language was another burden on Joyce Paulino and hundreds of nurses and care workers sent from the Philippines to Japan under an economic agreement between the two countries.
The language barrier has played a key role in dashing the dreams of many nurses and caregivers seeking permanent jobs in Japan, since the challenging national exam for them to be certified is given mostly in Japanese. As a result, very few have passed the exam.
But unlike many of her fellow workers sent to the Land of the Rising Sun under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (Jpepa), Paulino, 34, is one of a handful who not only mastered the language but also passed the exam for care workers on her first try early this year.
Her accomplishment ensures that she can continue staying, working and earning a decent living in Japan for as long she likes.
Paulino’s earnings at a nursing facility in Tokyo have been a big help to her parents and three siblings back home. She shoulders some of the household expenses, sends her youngest sibling to school, and pays for the tuition and other needs of her nieces and nephews.
Paulino is happy where she is, and doesn’t plan on returning home soon.
But all this did not come easy for Paulino. Learning the language while working and studying Japanese practices for the national test required skillful juggling and time management from her and many other foreign workers.
So it was not a surprise that many Filipino and Indonesian nurses and care workers who are in Japan under their countries’ economic partnership agreements have failed to pass the national exam.
High failure rate
In the most recent exam for the foreign workers early this year, only 9.6 percent of nursing candidates passed, and for care worker candidates, 39.8 percent, according to Yuko Ogino, deputy director for the Foreign Workers’ Affairs Division of the Employment Security Bureau.
The figure did not differ significantly from test results a year ago, Ogino said.
The Japanese government has known from the start that language proficiency would be a key part of the workers’ success in Japan, she said, and it is for language training from the start.
“One key element in deciding whether to accept [a candidate] or not depends on language ability in Japanese,” Ogino said in a briefing with participants of the 34th Nihon Shinbun Kyokai-Confederation of Asean Journalists fellowship program.
“And learning Japanese is quite a task,” she added.
But since the initial language training requirement proved inadequate, this was increased in succeeding years with the agreement of the participating countries, Ogino said.
Under the Jpepa, Filipino and Indonesian candidates must have 12 months of language training, six of them to be completed before they leave their country and the next six upon arrival in Japan.
Japan International Corp. of Welfare Services (Jicwels) has added more support measures to strengthen the workers’ language levels, such as e-learning and correspondence studies, mock exams and intensive seminars for the national exam, according to Ogino.
Japan has given concessions to foreign workers taking the exam, such as extra time to complete the tests. It has provided English translations for technical terms and now prints the Kana, or syllables, above the Kanji characters used in the tests so that the candidates can read these even if they cannot understand the characters.
Job training before test
Recently, the government allowed the nursing and caregiver candidates to extend their stay in the country for a year.
The nurses and care workers first come to Japan as trainees. After completing the six-month language course, they are assigned to hospitals and nursing facilities where they undergo job training—three years for nurses and four years for care workers. After this, they can take the national exam to qualify as permanent workers.
Nurses can take the annual exam up to three times, while care workers can take it in their third year of training in Japan. If they fail, they have to return home.
Nurses in Japan earn P66,000 to P113,000 a month, while care workers receive P64,000 to P95,000, depending on where they work.
Aside from language, the candidates must familiarize themselves with the way Japanese hospitals and nursing homes operate. The Japanese medical insurance system has been a particularly difficult area, Ogino noted.
Nurses from Vietnam
Ogino is hopeful the passing rate for the national exam will be higher when the next batch of foreign workers takes it. She said those who had undergone the additional language training scored better when tested for proficiency.
In 2014, Japan will start accepting nurses and care workers from Vietnam. The two countries have agreed to put in place more stringent language requirements for nursing and care worker candidates.
Earlier, critics of Jpepa slammed the agreement for being unfair to Filipino workers.
One of the things they objected to was the fact that Filipinos would work first as trainees in Japan instead of being recognized immediately as professional nurses and care workers, when those accepted into the program already have training and experience in the Philippines.
They bewailed the fact that the agreement did not commit Japan to follow international core labor standards and protection of migrant health workers’ rights.
According to Ogino, Jicwels staff periodically visit the facilities where workers under economic partnership agreements are assigned.
Check on conditions
Jicwels checks on the conditions in the facility, for instance seeing to it if the foreign workers get enough rest days, Ogino said. It also ensures that the working contract is upheld. The foreign workers are supposed to earn the same salaries as their Japanese counterparts.
“These are important because they are here under special contract under economic partnership agreements. So, it’s a sensitive issue if the conditions are not met as stated in the contract,” Ogino said.
Jicwels staff are available for consultations if the workers have problems. The treatment of foreign workers varies and depends on the medical institution or facility, and Jicwels sorts it out if there are any problems, according to Ogino.
Paulino, who arrived in Japan shortly after Jpepa took effect in 2009, did not have the advantage of getting all the additional language training. As Ogino noted, she was in the minority since she came before language support became sufficient.
Paulino attributed her success in the exam to self-discipline, even though she had to cram since she focused mainly on her job in the first couple of years.
After her six month-language course in Japan, she started working in a nursing facility in Tokyo and did not have any study period during the first year.
The following year, a mentor helped her, but it was mostly about practical work. Still, she was able to study once a week, for about an hour and a half.
In her third year, she was “still struggling” with the language and was worried about passing the exam. When Jicwels came by to check up on her, she told the staff that she had not really studied and was cramming. She was later sent to a training facility for caregiving.
A month before she took the exam, she was still worried and asked for more help, and Jicwels and the staff in her nursing home helped her prepare for the exam. She took a one-week vacation before the test to review on her own.
Her efforts were not in vain.
Now, she is not only a certified care worker but also speaks Japanese fluently.
Paulino also had to adjust to Japanese culture. A challenge for her was the food, which she has found to her liking. But she has also grown to love the country and is especially fond of its winter, something that her tropical country lacks.
Fortunately, she has not experienced any discrimination. She says she is lucky that her fellow staff members in the nursing facility have been nice, providing her some of the basic necessities so she does not have to spend much while in Tokyo.
Her bosses have also accommodated her request to take her rest day on Sunday, so she could attend Mass.
Japan wasn’t even a dream destination for Paulino, who had wanted to go to the United States or Canada. But her journey to Japan was providential and it turned out to be “destiny,” she said.
Crucial developments happened on her birthday, Jan. 27, she noted.
She had been working as a staff member in a Bulacan hospital when a friend convinced her to take a caregiving course. After that, a colleague, who learned about Jpepa from the news, suggested that she apply for it.
Why not? she thought.
In January of 2009, she went to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to apply. On her birthday, she got the news that she was accepted.
A few months later, she was was in Japan.
Four years later, on her birthday, she took the national test that would certify her as a care worker and allow her to continue working in Japan. It proved to be an auspicious date. By March, she learned she was among the few who passed.
This has cemented her desire to continue working in Japan.
“I want to stay,” she said.
Ogino said Japan was committed to ensuring the success of its economic partnership agreements with neighboring countries, which are intended to strengthen bilateral ties.
Stories like Paulino’s are very welcome.
“Since we are all involved in the economic partnership agreements, the Japanese government, along with the respective governments, would like to see a higher success ratio of these candidates,” Ogino said.