Some Filipino health workers turn backs on opportunities in Japan

Ronron Calunsod, Kyodo News

Posted at Apr 13 2016 03:39 PM

MANILA - A number Filipino nurses and caregivers who seized the opportunity to undergo training in Japan to qualify for work there have ended up returning to the Philippines, including some who passed the tough licensure exam.

"The journey to becoming a nurse in Japan was indeed a mission impossible....We were very tired physically, mentally and emotionally while studying to pass the board exam and working at the same time. All of us were pushed to study even on our rest day," a Filipino nurse who quit only a year after his deployment in 2011 told Kyodo News recently.

The 33-year-old nurse, who requested anonymity so he could freely express his views, is among more than 1,200 Filipino nurses and caregivers who were accepted by Japan starting in 2009 under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement.

Under the program, nurses and caregivers from the Philippines first learn the Japanese language and culture, undergo training in Japanese health facilities, and then take the Japanese licensure exam in their respective profession.

Candidates who pass the exam are granted a working visa, thereby helping Japan address its lack of health workers amid a growing elderly population.

A fresh batch of 60 nurses and 275 caregivers is about to complete a six-month Japanese language and culture course in the Philippines before deployment to Japan in June.

"Learning the (Japanese) language alone is already difficult, and it's all the more grueling trying to pass the (licensure) exam," the Filipino nurse, who has already migrated to another country after returning to the Philippines from Japan, shared in an e-mail message.

He complained also of a change in the terms of pay in his contract when he started working in a hospital.

To encourage candidates to complete the program, he said they should be allowed to shadow their Japanese counterparts as they perform their jobs, instead of getting assigned to orderly tasks or janitorial functions.

"If I could turn back the clock, I would have not chosen to sacrifice my career as a public nurse back home and my family life," the Filipino nurse said.

Filipino caregivers Aira Ignacio and Bernadette Villanueva, speaking to Kyodo News in a separate interview, also attested to the difficulty in working and studying at the same time when they were admitted to the program in 2011.

"There are times when you really wanna give up, because not all things in Japan are good," Ignacio, 30, said. "There were times during my first year there that I asked myself if that is really the job that I wanted, because I'm not really used to taking care of old people, and doing it alone."

Ignacio, who is a licensed nurse in the Philippines, was assigned to a facility in Okinawa, while Villanueva, 29, went to a facility in Hamamatsu.

But unlike the Filipino nurse, Ignacio and Villanueva endured the challenges during their three-year training and went on to pass the licensure exam for caregivers in 2015.

Both said that while their respective facilities supported them in their studies while they worked, they also had to study in their free time just to make sure they passed the exam.

Passing the licensure exam did not lead to a significant increase in their pay, contrary to their initial expectations.

For this reason, coupled with personal ones -- recurring back pain and wanting to be reunited with her family for Ignacio, and marriage plans for Villanueva, the two decided to return to the Philippines last year.

Equipped with their Japanese language skills, the two are now working in a relatively high-paying job in Manila -- serving as interpreters in hospitals for Japanese patients who cannot speak English.

The two agree that their present circumstances are much better than if they had continued working in Japan as licensed caregivers, because aside from the good pay, they are also living with or close to their respective families. Being able to continue speaking the Japanese language and working in the medical field are additional benefits.

But amid their difficulties in Japan, Ignacio and Villanueva said there were plenty of positive things they will never forget, foremost of which is the sense of achievement of overcoming the physical, mental and emotional challenges as affirmed by their successful shot at the licensure exam.

"Living in Japan is not like being in heaven. There's loneliness, homesickness. But when I felt the desire to go home before, I just thought right away of the reason why I went there," Villanueva said.

"We advise them to have lots of patience, because you really have to study and work at the same time," Ignacio added.

The two admit to being open to the possibility of returning to Japan if the right offer comes, noting also how they have missed the clean environment, the politeness of the Japanese people, and the efficiency of the public transport system there, among other aspects.

Ignacio said she is willing to work again as a caregiver in Japan only if she will not be required to lift patients, while Villanueva hopes to learn in Japan how to manage a caregiving facility.

According to official data, a little over 160 of the nearly 200 Filipino nurses and caregivers who have passed the Japanese licensure exams from 2010 up to 2015 are currently working in Japan.

For this year, 56 Filipino caregivers and nurses passed the Japanese licensure exam, but there is no data immediately available as to how many of them are currently employed in Japan.

The Japan International Corporation for Welfare Services, which directly handles the program on the part of Japan, said the most common reason cited by those licensure exam passers who decided not to work in Japan is personal and family issues, particularly their desire to just be close to and take care of their parents.