On her Facebook page, Grace – not her real name – is bubbly and all smiles, like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

She sends home skin-whitening gels, green tea and Meiji chocolates to sell online and to her friends.

With her salary as a nurse in Japan – 900 Japanese yen (S$11) per hour, eight hours a day – she could vacation abroad with her boyfriend.

But she chooses to go home.

Home is a newly constructed retirement property for her parents in the northern Philippine province of Pangasinan which she bought with her savings and a loan.

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“However, months later after having bought the house, in the middle of my contract, my dad was diagnosed with cancer … We lost him and it was devastating. But I realised that I still have my mum,” Grace said.

It was not until April, when her five-year contract ended, that she was allowed to return home. First on her agenda was to repay some of her dad’s hospital bills and personal loans.

She found the Japanese “kind and hardworking” and “very caring when you get to be friends with them” although she had heard “some terrible stories” from fellow Filipinos. She said many nurses like her went overseas “for career advancement”.

But the work is hard. “Almost every month, I wanted to give up.” Trained as a nurse, she also had to do the work of a carer and at the same time learn the language.

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She had to cope with “patients who have severe dementia who sometimes could hurt you. I experienced being spat on, peed on and even held faeces [accidentally but with bare hands] … I got kicked, spanked, my hair pulled, and bad-mouthed. This is just a normal scene inside the caregiving facility.”

Grace is among the 2,200 Filipino nurses and care workers Japan has accepted under the 2006 Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA). Since she has not yet taken the country’s licensing exam, she is paid less than the standard wage for nurses in Japan.

A new visa programme launched in April will expand the jobs open to foreign skilled and highly skilled workers under the Technical Internship Training Programme. Japan’s envoy to Manila, Koji Haneda, told Filipino businessmen he personally estimated “more than 50,000 workers from the Philippines will come to work in Japan with this new work permit by 2025”.

Kyodo news, quoting Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, said that before the new visas came in, as of October 2018, the total number of foreign workers in Japan was 1.46 million, of which 389,117 were Chinese nationals, 316,840 Vietnamese, and 164,006 Filipinos. Japan’s population is about 126 million.

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Haneda said more than 25,000 Filipino trainees had already worked in Japan in such sectors as agriculture, fishery, construction and manufacturing.

Benjamin San Jose, assistant professor of Japanese Studies and Political Science at Ateneo de Manila University, said there were two reasons for relaxing Tokyo’s tight immigration policy. First, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had heightened demand in the construction, service and hospitality sectors. Second, Japan’s ageing population meant there were fewer people entering the domestic workforce.

In a paper on “the two faces of Japan and the arrival of Filipino technical interns”, San Jose recalled coming face to face with that reality in the snow-capped, mountaintop town of Nukasen in Nagano prefecture.

Apart from the stunning view, he noticed that the town of 4,661 residents had only three children. Many youths had left, leaving mostly the aged. “Their own elementary school was converted into an elderly care facility,” San Jose said.

Japan’s new visa rules have been welcomed by the Philippine labour secretary, but San Jose struck a note of caution, saying Tokyo still needed to address “flawed labour policies” that classified foreign workers as “technical interns who went to Japan to learn new skills” and not as “guest workers” protected by labour laws.

This had led to reports of “abuse by employers, non-payment of salaries, and in some extreme cases, death by overwork”.

San Jose added that activists had criticised the technical internship programme as “a side-door migration policy for Japan to exploit cheap foreign labour”.

Last year, 40 Filipino “trainees” at Hitachi’s Kasado Works in Yamaguchi prefecture were fired after complaining about their working conditions and joining a union. The trainees – many of whom had engineering backgrounds – were made to fit toilets in railway cars instead of learning how to assemble electrical machinery as they had expected. The union negotiated with Hitachi for the company to pay the balance of the trainees’ salaries after they were fired.

Still, despite such reports, many Filipinos are jumping at the chance to work in Japan. Otan Agbayani now works as an English schoolteacher there. She said a confidentiality clause in her contract barred her from disclosing her salary, working hours, benefits and place of work.

“There were a lot of times I wanted to give up, especially in my first month,” Otan said. “I was away from home, didn’t understand the language and didn’t know the place. The work itself can also be really hard at first.”

Otan is a second-generation overseas worker. Her father has been working in Abu Dhabi for 15 years.

What kept her going?

“I just didn’t want to go back home like a loser. I went to Japan for a purpose and that is to grow and learn from the efficiency and persistence of the Japanese,” she said.

“I don’t plan to stay in Japan for a very long time. My goal is to go back to the Philippines and apply the things I learned there.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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