In a Japanese-style apartment, Maria Del Bago learns how to properly bow, clean traditional tatami floor-matting and decipher instructions for a high-tech toilet.

But she’s not in Tokyo. She’s 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) away in Manila.

Maria Del Bago

Bago, a 37-year-old computer science graduate who previously worked as a housekeeper for an Arab family, is one of 26 experienced cleaners selected by Pasona Group Inc. to undergo more than 400 hours of language and skills training in the Philippine capital. They are set to begin work in Japan in the spring.

“I’d like to think I’m a faster learner,” Bago said. “I also trust that the training that I get will let me adjust easier and avoid being culture shocked.”

The program is the latest step toward opening up Japan to more foreigners, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government seeks ways to counter a shrinking labor force that threatens to hamstring the world’s third-biggest economy. But with a majority of Japanese opposed to a mass influx into a largely homogeneous society, the government and the firms involved have adopted an exacting admissions process.

“It’s inadequate,” Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co Ltd. in Tokyo, said of the housekeeper policy. “However, the fact that they’re doing it at all is a piece of progress. Given what’s happening in the rest of the labor market, it’s at least one step forward.”

The admission of cleaners from overseas -- first to Kanagawa and Osaka and later to Tokyo -- is aimed at making housekeeping services affordable for the middle classes and getting more Japanese women into the workforce. These women are needed to help buck a current trend that could see the labor force of about 65 million collapsing by more than 40 percent by 2060, according to a government panel projection.

Heizo Takenaka, a former economy minister who now serves on a government panel on special economic zones and as chairman/director at Pasona, sees the housekeeping program as Japan’s first serious attempt at bringing in the workers needed to put the economy on track. While immigration opponents fear a rise in crime if rules are eased, he cited Singapore as an example of a country with many foreigners and low crime.

“This won’t change things drastically,” Takenaka said of the housekeeping program. “It is a very Japanese way of doing things. We couldn’t have them flooding in like they do in Hong Kong.”

Humility Wanted

Under the new visa category created for special zones, cleaners must be employed full time by agencies, rather than individuals, and be paid as much as their Japanese colleagues. Rather than living with a family, recruits must be provided with their own accommodation. They must also speak basic Japanese.

“Attitude is as important as skills,” said Contessa Tadena, a trainer in the Philippines who works at Magsaysay Center for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, whose sister organization Magsaysay Global Services Inc. dispatches the maids. “I teach my students the value of honesty, respect and politeness. You have to be kind as a whole, aside from being hard-working.”

Two participants have already been rejected from the course for failing to show sufficient humility.

Abe touted the idea of foreign cleaners and elderly-care workers in a speech at Davos in January 2014. But with employers required to jump through so many hoops, it has taken three years to get the first couple of dozen workers ready even though there is no set limit on how many can enter.

Delays, Regulations

The delay occurred in part because 2014 was an election year, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday.

“We are doing this for the first time, so there was some coordination,” Suga said. “Anyway, at last it will start next month. It is our responsibility to create a system that can be widely used.”

Over-regulation risks stifling the project, according to Yuki Takahashi, a founder of Tokyo-based housekeeping company Bears KK, which also plans to employ a handful of staff from the Philippines.

“If the regulations aren’t relaxed, this will be a loss-making venture for the companies concerned,” Takahashi said. “Japanese housekeepers don’t need qualifications -- if someone is of good character we can hire and train them. Why can’t we do the same with the foreign workers?”