- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

TOKYO (AP) - Japan accepted more than 200 Indonesian nurses into the country on Thursday, an unprecedented move as Tokyo struggles to quell a labor shortage triggered by sinking fertility rates.

The arrival of 205 Indonesians, an exception allowed under a bilateral economic agreement signed with Jakarta in April, signaled a loosening of immigration procedures in a country where many people equate foreigners with social disorder.

The Indonesians, all registered nurses in their homeland, will work as assistants while training for Japanese certification, roughly half of them as nurses and half of them as caregivers to work in nursing homes and other facilities.

“The program opens the door for them to stay here and work in those professions as long as they pass Japan’s national test,” said Haruhiro Jono, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Japan has come under increasing pressure in recent years to accept more immigrant workers, particularly since the total population began to decline in 2005. Many worry there will not be enough workers to support the growing elderly population.

Thursday’s arrivals marked the first time Japan had allowed foreigners to enter the country specifically to work in the nursing profession, though foreigners arriving on different visas _ as spouses of Japanese, for instance _ have gotten similar jobs.

The Indonesians arrived under an economic partnership accord, which took effect July 1, that will allow a total of 1,000 nurses into Japan over the next two years.

Developing countries in Asia are also urging Japan to open its doors to provide training and economic opportunities to their citizens. Japan is discussing similar programs with the Philippines and Thailand.

Those who arrived Thursday will start working at about 100 hospitals and nursing homes early next year after taking classes in Japanese language, culture and medical training, Foreign Ministry official Kazuya Kaneko said.

Three more Indonesian nurses who already speak Japanese are joining them at the end of August.

Japan has long been reluctant to host outsiders for fear of disrupting its tightly knit, orderly society. Despite increasing immigration, foreigners still make up less than 2 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent in the United States.

But demographics suggest the country has little choice but to open its doors a little wider.

Japan’s population of 127 million is forecast to plunge to about 100 million by 2050, when more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older and drawing health and pension benefits. Less than half of Japanese will be of working age of 15-64.

Fearing a drastic fall in consumption, production and tax revenues, Japanese bureaucrats are scrambling to boost fertility rates and get more women and elderly into the work force.

But many Japanese, including ruling party officials, have acknowledged that more foreigners must be allowed in, though many argue entry should be limited to educated workers, engineers, educators and health professionals with Japanese-language skills.

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