Rural Japan Looks to Myanmar

Many rural areas in Japan are struggling in the face of a shortage of people available to work. Behind the issue are the twin problems of a declining birthrate and an aging population.

One association of nursing care facilities for the elderly in Saga Prefecture, western Japan, has decided to avoid domestic competition, and is instead recruiting caregivers from abroad.

It's turning now to Myanmar -- often called Asia's last frontier.

Early Challenges

Nine years ago, 2 trainee caregivers came to Japan. They joined a nursing care facility in Taku City, Saga Prefecture, based on a partnership agreement between Japan and Indonesia.

They received support from the facility in all aspects of their lives, including providing homes and offering advice on exam-taking techniques. They both passed their certification tests in record time and their success was so remarkable it was featured by the media.

Just as the facility started to hope they might be managerial candidates, one returned to Indonesia and the other was recruited by a facility in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

The facility says it kept trying to recruit new caregivers from abroad, but faced a real difficulty. Its location in rural Saga held little appeal for prospective candidates seeking opportunities with higher salaries and urban lifestyles.

Focus on Myanmar

Most care facilities in Saga Prefecture face more or less similar conditions. Independent facilities began voicing fears that they would not be able to carry on much longer on their own. An association of nursing care facilities for the elderly took action.

Yasuhisa Katami is Secretary-General of the Saga Prefecture Association of Geriatric Health Care Facilities. He focused on Myanmar, a country sometimes referred to as Asia's last frontier. It has a devout Buddhist tradition and a culture that respects the elderly.

Many young people in Myanmar are seeking better-paying jobs abroad because political instability has hampered development in their own country.

Katami began visiting Myanmar in hopes of creating a network of caregivers on his own. But he immediately hit a wall.

Low Reputation

Fierce competition for caregivers was already under way, not only among industrialized places in Europe and the United States, but Taiwan and South Korea as well.

Singapore is a particularly popular client. Its government and organizations hiring staff are known to act swiftly to resolve wage-related trouble or other problems.

But in Japan, procedures to accept foreign staffers are complex and time-consuming. Problems that arise after they start working are not rare.

The temp staff agency representative says: "There used to be lots of young people wanting to go to Japan, but their number is falling. Many workers leave due to unexpected troubles, such as unpaid overtime. I'm disappointed with Japan."

"Saga-style" Initiative

Katami re-examined his strategy and came up with a new initiative.

He first teamed up with Japanese language schools in Myanmar. Katami asks the schools to pick students with a certain level of Japanese proficiency and who are deemed suitable to be caregivers.

A scholarship to learn Japanese is awarded to promising students. Katami also joined hands with Japanese local governments and junior colleges to offer free tuition in Japan, low-cost dormitories, help students find part-time jobs and provide other support measures to make it easier to live in Japan.

But there's a requirement -- they must acquire the necessary license and work at a facility in Saga for at least 5 years.

Mutual Trust Is Vital

Eleven people formed the first group to arrive in Japan under the initiative this fiscal year. To ease their anxiety, Katami organized a party in Myanmar just before the group's departure to brief them about the initiative.

The students respect Katami, as he takes care of them in various aspects of their lives in Japan. He says it's particularly important to regard them not only as staff, but to see them as colleagues.

Applicants' Aspirations

One of them, Naing Ko Ko Tun, gave up his stable career as a public servant handling railways to work in Japan.

He had doubts at first, thinking the terms were too good to be true. But he soon came to trust the program, thanks to its official backing within Japan.

People in Myanmar believe they should take care of the elderly members of their families on their own. Naing says he vividly recalls his mother taking time out of work to look after his grandmother.

He says "I want to make good use of the knowledge I gain in Japan to help ensure nursing care-related jobs can take root in Myanmar. And I want to make money to help my family."

About 4 months have passed since the group arrived in Japan. They've gradually become used to their new environment and are now busy juggling studies and part-time jobs. Naing has already learned all the basic tasks at his care facility and is doing night shifts there.

All of them are highly-motivated and actively engaged in training. Their grades at junior college are among the best. And the care facilities where they're training say they want them to come onboard as regular staff.

The trainees share their experiences in Japan with people in Myanmar via Facebook. About 25 people applied for the program last fiscal year, but the number has already topped 100 this time round.

Can "Saga-style" Initiative Create a Positive Cycle?

If everything goes as expected, the 11 Myanmar trainees will finish their 2-year courses in March 2020. They will then work in Saga for at least 5 more years.

It is not yet known how many will remain beyond that, but there are hopes that Saga will be able to attract more workers from Myanmar if its reputation earns their trust. What's more, Saga will probably be able to maintain its link to the trainees even after they return home.

Katami doesn't want to waste time. He visits Myanmar frequently, eyeing the next round of recruitment.

Projections suggest Japan will be short of some 340,000 caregivers in 2025, when post-war baby-boomers reach 75. The central government has changed course and is also likely to accept more workers from overseas.

The idea of a Saga-style initiative is not merely to accept foreign workers, rather it is to welcome new human resources from overseas and help them develop in the region.

And that makes it all the more likely that Saga's initiative will become to a role model for the future.