TOKYO - Japan's nursing care schools have seen a marked increase in foreign student numbers following a legal amendment making it easier for prospective caregivers to acquire resident status in the rapidly graying country.
The surge in foreign students training to become caregivers is a boon for schools in Japan, which faces a serious labor shortage in its nursing care sector, which has struggled to attract workers willing to toil in demanding conditions for poor pay.
According to the Japan Association of Training Institutions for Certified Care Workers, comprising bodies including vocational schools and junior colleges, the number of foreign students nationwide has grown more than seven-fold from 34 in academic year 2011 to 257 in academic year 2016.
Under bilateral economic partnership agreements between Japan and Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, prospective caregivers can only obtain resident status in Japan after at least three years of work experience and passing the national qualification exam in their fourth year.
But an amendment to the current immigration law, which was passed last year and will come into force this year, enables foreign students at nursing care schools to obtain resident status in Japan after being certified as caregivers by the state.
Spurred by this legal change, which the industry hopes will lead to an increase in foreigners working as nursing caregivers, foreign nationals including students at Japanese language schools are seizing this opportunity to study nursing care.
The Japan Welfare Education College in Tokyo has a total of 15 foreign students after 10 enrolled in spring last year. Nationalities include Vietnamese, Nepalese, and Filipino, and many of the students wish to eventually work in Japan, school officials said.
One such student is Vu Thi Thu Trang, a 29-year-old Vietnamese national, who began pursuing a nursing care career on the recommendation of a friend.
"I am glad that foreigners can now work in Japan when they become caregivers. I want to stay on (in Japan) and engage in nursing care," Trang said.
The Kansai College of Social Welfare in Osaka is set to welcome around 30 Vietnamese students from this spring, comprising around half of its maximum 60-student intake per academic year.
The college has been preparing to accept foreign students for the past two years.
"The situation, in which the nursing care industry will have to rely on foreign nationals, will remain unchanged in the years to come," school principal Yohei Yamamoto said.
One school in Tokyo has seen foreign students making up more than three-quarters of its 60 students who enrolled last year.
By contrast, the overall number of students in Japan aiming to join the nursing care sector is seeing a sharp decline, with the figure standing at 7,752 as of April last year. This comprises only 46.4 percent of the quota.
Kazuhiko Mashiko, a senior official of the Japan Association of Training Institutions for Certified Care Workers, said he "welcomes" the growing number of foreign students. "Accepting foreign students will also be part of international contribution," he noted.
Eager to take advantage of this development, the Japan Association of Geriatric Health Services Facilities has set up a working group to consider introducing a scholarship for prospective caregivers, who can both study and work, with an eye to hiring them when they graduate.
But several hurdles remain, such as language and cultural barriers for foreign caregivers. The pass rate for foreign examinees in the national qualification exam for the fiscal 2015 testing was 50.9 percent.
Junya Ishimoto, chairman of the Japan Association of Certified Care Workers, said he hopes the association can help ease the concerns of such caregivers. "So long as (aspirants) obtain qualification, their nationality does not matter," he said.