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Economy

Aging Asia scrambling for nursing workforce

TOKYO/MANILA -- As Japan's population rapidly ages, the country will probably face greater difficulties securing enough manpower for their care.

     Despite measures such as expanded technical internship programs that train workers from overseas, Japan may soon lose foreign nursing workers to other Asian countries that are quickly aging, too.

A care worker from Southeast Asia assists an elderly woman at a private nursing home in Tokyo's Arakawa Ward.

     Tatsumi Nakayama, executive director of a social welfare organization in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture, that provides nursing care, learned during a recent visit to Jakarta that more and more Indonesian care providers are going to Taiwan and other places to earn money.

     They are opting for Taiwan because it is closer to their home country, in addition to having laxer employment requirements and rising wages thanks to strong economic growth.

     Nakayama used to believe that attracting Asian workers and training them in nursing and Japanese language skills was the quickest way to secure sufficient nursing staff for Japan's elderly. The country is expected to be short 300,000 nursing staff by fiscal 2025.

     Convinced that Indonesia might not be able to supply sufficient nursing staff, he turned to Vietnam. He established a program to send lecturers to teach Japanese methods of care at the nursing faculty of Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy in hopes of later inviting its graduates to Japan. Fortunately, many Vietnamese are friendly to Japan and show interest in its language, as well. But Vietnam might not be able to provide a steady supply of care workers, either.

     In March, a Vietnamese government official warned Osamu Nimonjiya that it will be difficult for Japanese employers to retain enough care workers from that country, as the value of the yen declines. The money such workers earn in Japan has declined in value by 10-20% when converted into Asian currencies since the second half of last year. Nimonjiya is an office manager of Asian Human Power Networks, a nonprofit organization that supports Asian workers who want to land jobs in the medical welfare sector in Japan.

     In the Philippines, a major supplier of manpower around the world, a 32-year-old woman in Pampanga near Manila is studying to be a care provider at a vocational school. She said she is less eager than before to go to Japan to earn money, and was not sure if it was worthwhile to learn to speak Japanese.

     Filipino workers, many of whom are fluent in English because it is an official language of the country, are in demand in a number of places in Asia, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. 

Region-wide problem

The need for elder care staff is growing across Asia much faster than in Japan. It will take roughly 40 years for the ratio of people aged 65 or over to grow by 20 percentage points in Japan. The figure stood at 12.0% in 1990 and it is expected to reach 31.6% in 2030. However, at current rates it will take only 30 years or so for the figure to increase from 11.1% in 2010 to 30.5% in 2040 in South Korea, and from 10.7% in 2010 to 30.1% in 2040 in Taiwan. 

     Nimonjiya said that wealthy Chinese have started employing Filipinos as domestic help to care for elderly parents as well as teach English to their children. According to the Philippine Foreign Ministry, however, it is illegal for foreigners to work as domestic help in China. But an expanding network of job brokers and visa application organizations is helping more and more Filipino workers go to China and work as domestic help.

     The demographic change in China is certain to have a material effect on Asia's labor market from now on. The proportion of elderly in the population will still be lower than in other countries, at an estimated 11.7% in 2020 and 22.1% in 2040. However, because the total population of the country is so large, the number of elderly is expected by 2020 to reach roughly 140 million, more than the total population of Japan. If China's wealthy, though a fraction of the entire population, start hiring foreigners as care providers, it will have a considerable impact on the distribution of labor in Asia.

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