MANILA - While not all Filipino health workers who train in Japan under an intergovernmental program have been successful, the opportunity to learn about Japanese healthcare and possibly practice their profession there remains attractive to new candidates from the Philippines.
"I believe that if I'll be able to work in Japan, I will learn even more and grow professionally," Filipino nurse Angelito Custodio told Kyodo News. "The health care system in Japan is very good and the technology in Japan is very high."
Custodio, a 25-year-old licensed nurse in the Philippines who has worked for more than three years at a hospital in Bulacan province just north of Manila, is part of the eighth group of Filipinos currently preparing to go to Japan for training.
His group consists of over 60 nurses and 275 caregivers who began a six-month Japanese language and culture course in Manila late last year. They will continue similar training during their first six months in Japan after their expected deployment in June.
As with earlier aspirants, the new candidates will then be assigned to different health facilities in Japan and go through training while preparing to take the Japanese licensure exams for nurses and caregivers.
Once they pass the exams, they would have a chance to work in Japan.
"I want to work in Japan because it is one of the safest countries in the world," said Mary Jane Balberona, 29, one of the candidate caregivers in the eighth batch.
"The people are very well-disciplined and I'm very interested in the Japanese culture. Aside from that, I believe that my service would be of value in Japan," Balberona said.
Both she and Custodio acknowledge that one of the major difficulties is learning the Japanese language, which is very different from Filipino and English.
Having applied for the program in 2014 but failed to make the cut, Balberona said she took a 150-hour Japanese language course in preparation for her second attempt.
Custodio, whose older brother was part of the program's seventh group and remains in Japan in the hope of eventually passing the licensure exam for nurses, said the current language and culture course handled by the Japan Foundation is helpful.
"It's quite difficult but we know that if we practice every day, in the future we'll be able to speak somehow in Japanese," he said.
Yuka Otani, one of the 22 Japanese teachers sent from Japan to teach the current batch of candidate health workers, said Filipinos are more adaptable to foreign languages, including Japanese, because they are already accustomed to multiple languages.
Having taught the Japanese language in Malaysia and Vietnam as well, she said Filipinos are also "more cheerful in learning" and creative in presenting their skills.
Japan has accepted over a thousand Filipino nurses and caregivers under the program since its launch in 2009, three years after the two countries forged the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement.
Official data show that more than 250 Filipinos have passed the Japanese licensure exams and most of them are currently working in Japan.
Ruby Pink Abriol, 31, a Filipino nurse who passed the Japanese licensure exam for nurses in 2014, said she had zero knowledge of the Japanese language when she joined the third batch of applicants in 2011.
Speaking to Kyodo News during her recent vacation in Manila, Abriol admits that even now, she is still not confident about her Japanese proficiency.
"I was like a working student in Japan. Half-day is spent for studying and half-day for working. At night I study for about four hours. And on my days off I study for eight to 12 hours," she recounted.
In addition to the language barrier, Abriol said she also has had to adjust to the working environment in Japan where people are focused, professional-minded and can sometimes be very strict.
She was also surprised when she was assigned cleaning and janitorial tasks during her early days in Japan.
Even after passing the nurse licensure exam, there are limits to what she is allowed to do to patients on her own and the salary increase was minimal.
"It's really a tough job because it takes lots of responsibilities...but professionally, it's advantageous," said Abriol, who will take up a new challenge when she starts working at a different hospital in Japan this month.
Unlike other aspirants who have left Japan without completing the program or even after they have passed the licensure exams, Abriol decided to continue to work there for now.
"Passing the board exam was really difficult. Not everyone can have this privilege," she said.
Despite the hardships, she encourages fellow Filipino health professionals not to pass on this opportunity to train and work in Japan because, for her, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
But while she advises aspirants to study and adjust to the Japanese culture, she also hopes Japan will do the same toward Filipinos and other foreign workers "so that both governments' long-term goals will be met."
"Japan really needs health workers. That's a long-term need. I'm hoping and wishing they will learn to adapt to foreigners so that a lot of nurses can also come (to work in Japan)," she said.
Abriol is proud about one of the differences she sees between Filipino nurses and their Japanese counterparts in that the former consider their career as a "personal" job.
"We treat patients like family," she said.