MANILA/TOKYO -- Beside a table with a teapot, teacups and chopsticks, Rovie Ebanculla vacuums a tatami mat while another female colleague cleans an elaborate toilet bowl, the kind that have made their way into many Japanese homes.
Both are in the Philippines, in a simulated room inside the Magsaysay Center for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, to be exact. But they hope to land housekeeping jobs in Kanagawa Prefecture, next to Tokyo, within weeks.
They and 24 other "professional housekeepers" are to make up the first batch of Filipino workers to be deployed to Japan via staffing agency Pasona.
Japan's immigration policy used to allow foreigners to work as housekeepers only in the homes of diplomats and a few select others. But in 2015, a so-called "special zones" law was revised to allow foreign housekeepers to be employed in three regions.
The special zones law is part of the current Japanese government's growth strategy. The revision is, in part, meant to help Japanese women re-enter the workforce after having babies.
Makiko Sawafuji, manager of Pasona's housekeeping unit, said the Filipino workers will help the understaffed industry. "Recruitment," she said, "has always been a big problem for us."
Foreign housekeepers will also be allowed to work in Osaka and Tokyo.
There is no limit to the number of foreign workers companies can hire in each "zone," and Pasona has a bold plan to hire 1,000 Filipinos over three years once it starts the dispatch service.
For 10,000 yen (about $89), Pasona will send someone to clean a client's home twice a month for two hours each time. Other plans are more expensive.
The newly revised special zones law requires that foreign housekeepers have at least a year of experience and a minimum of 200 hours of training. They must be employed full-time and receive the same pay as their Japanese counterparts, who usually earn around 120,000 yen to 180,000 yen a month, part time.
Ebanculla, 36, a mother of two and a wife to a clerk, previously worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. But she finds working in Japan more attractive, at least in terms of workload. "In Japan," she said, "we are only required to work for eight hours a day. It's fixed."
In Hong Kong, she stayed at her employer's house, where she worked almost the whole day. "Even during the time when you are supposed to rest," she said. In Japan, Pasona will arrange for her lodging.
But getting the chance to work in Japan is not a walk in the park. "For my job in Hong Kong," Ebanculla said, "I trained for seven days." For Japan, the training program spans over two months.
Magsaysay, Pasona's Philippine training partner, shortlisted 67 women for the program, but only 28 made it to the training phase, and only 26 were deemed fit for deployment.
"Japan is totally different from where the rest of Filipinos work, like in the Middle East, Hong Kong and Singapore," said Marlon Rono, president of Magsaysay People Resources Corp. "That is why training is very important. First, the skill that is needed and second the culture and language -- [housekeepers] have to adapt to be successful in Japan."
Pasona's program involves 400 hours of training; 300 hours were devoted to learning Japanese language and culture, with the remainder spent on actual housecleaning skills.
"We want to make sure that cultural and language gaps are bridged," Pasona President Scott Sato said.
Ebanculla learned basic Japanese at Magsaysay and was able to answer questions from Japanese reporters in the language.
She said she had to do well in the training and make it to Japan "for the future of my kids." Pasona funded the training of the house helpers, who expect to earn up to 10 times more than the local salary for such jobs.
Though housekeeping services and domestic workers are common in other parts of Asia, laws have kept them out of Japan.
According to Nomura Research Institute's survey on housekeeping-related industries in 2014, only 3% of Japanese women said they had used housekeepers. Another 70% said they had known about housekeeping services but had never used them.
Among this latter group, 45% said they thought they did not earn enough to be able to pay a housekeeper, 47% said they were hesitant to have an outsider enter their home and 39% said they did not need a housekeeper.
Multiple answers were allowed.
Kana Takeda, a Nomura Research consultant, has another thought on the matter. "Besides economic reasons," Takeda said, "there is a psychological barrier in Japan -- women think housekeeping should not be outsourced."
The Japanese government is beginning to champion the industry, hoping to unburden Japanese women from the long hours they spend on cleaning and other duties at home.
According to a 2011 survey by Japan's Statistics Bureau, men in dual-income households with children spent an average of 39 minutes per day doing chores, while women toiled for 4 hours and 53 minutes.
In line with the special zones law revision, the economy ministry in 2015 outlined some industry guidelines. Together with a housekeeping service association, it soon plans to come up with a certification system for the agencies. The idea behind the standards is to lay a foundation that would one day allow foreign housekeepers to work anywhere in the country.
Some companies believe current regulations will prevent the industry from growing. They are especially concerned that foreign housekeepers cannot be kept on for more than three years. After that, their contracts must end.
"It would be a wasted investment to let a full-time employee go after only three years, especially with such long hours spent on training," said Yuki Takahashi, founder of Tokyo-based housekeeping company Bears, which plans to hire Filipino housekeepers.
Operational costs are another issue. The law does not allow for live-in maids. To keep costs down, Pasona will put six of its Filipino housekeepers in a single apartment. Rent and utility bills will be deducted from their monthly wage of 168,000 yen.
Industry players are hopeful the government will relax the regulations.
"The government has finally given us the green light [to hire foreign workers]," said Noriko Nakamura, founder and CEO of childcare service Poppins, which will receive five Filipino workers from Magsaysay. "It has taken too long. But I am certain that other hurdles will be lowered, too."