KESENNUMA, Japan -- Laughter is often heard from some 40 elderly people gathering for day-care services at a care home in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, thanks to the presence of a Filipino worker.
"When I speak in English, grandpas seem delighted," Charito Ito said, revealing her secret for getting elderly people to laugh.
Ito, 38, is married to a Japanese man and works at Minamisanriku Kings Garden as a caregiver.
Ito was working at a local fishery processing plant when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the northeastern Japan region of Tohoku on March 11, 2011. Ito, like many others, lost her job.
According to the Justice Ministry, the three worst-hit prefectures -- Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima -- had a total of 33,279 foreign residents at the end of 2010. Many of them were Chinese and Filipino women married to Japanese men as well as Chinese trainees employed by local fishery processing plants.
The twin disasters caused widespread loss of employment opportunities and forced a large number of foreign residents to return to their countries. As a result, the combined population of foreign residents in the three prefectures dropped to 29,457 at the end of June 2013. In Kesennuma, the number dropped to 265 from 461 during the same period.
To create new job opportunities for foreigners who stayed in Kesennuma, the city office started seminars in cooperation with support groups to help them obtain entry-level licenses to work at care homes short of staff. Of 31 foreign residents who had received licenses by January 2013, more than 10 are working as caregivers.
Ito, who has been working at Minamisanriku Kings Garden for two years, feels the work suits her as she has experience of having cared for her mother-in-law, who died five years ago.
Ito married Takao, 64, and came to Japan in 1997. Life in Japan was tough for her because she could not understand Japanese well and had to endure a demanding mother-in-law.
But when her husband's mother became sick, Ito drove her to and from hospital as well as fed and bathed her and changed her diapers. The mother-in-law gradually removed her emotional wall against Ito.
While busy with a mountain of work such as driving and bathing the elderly care recipients, Ito found they enjoyed being spoken to in English. During physical exercise, elderly people say "Okay" in English when she issues instructions.
Tsukiko Saito, 83, one of the care recipients at Minamisanriku Kings Garden, said, "She (Ito) is positive whatever she does and makes my visit here enjoyable."
Kazuko Fujita, head of the care home, said Ito is trusted by visitors and is "an important asset to us."
In addition to her work at the care home, Ito has set up a group with some 10 Filipino friends to produce a radio program in cooperation with a multi-language station, FMYY, in Kobe.
Ito wants a large number of people to know the situation of Kesennuma through the radio program. "Kesennuma is my second home where I live with my family and I want to contribute to reconstruction," she said.