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Money Dreams: Foreign Students to Japan Face Growing Risks

Idei Yasuhiro [Profile]


Japanese language schools have been growing in number year after year, and there are now more than 600 in operation around the country. But many of their students have come to earn rather than learn, deceived by brokers touting high-paying jobs. They borrow heavily to come to Japan, where they find themselves struggling to pay off their loans while laboring for low wages at jobs shunned by Japanese.

A Surge in the Population of Foreign Students

As of the end of 2016, the number of foreign students enrolled in Japanese educational institutions had reached 277,331, about 100,000 more than four years before. The government has set a target of raising the number of international students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020, but there is a good chance that this target will be met by the end of this year.

Virtually nobody objects to the increase in the number of international students. Even those who oppose the admission of foreign laborers welcome the growth in the ranks of students from abroad. But what would they say if they heard that many of these students are here not to learn but to earn—and that they are being exploited, overstaying their visas, and even turning to crime?

Non-Chinese Asians Account for the Bulk of the Increase

Until a few years ago, Chinese accounted for about 60% of the international students in Japan. Recently, though, while the numbers of Chinese have hardly increased at all, the numbers of those from elsewhere in Asia have risen sharply. The biggest surge has been in students from Vietnam, who have more than quadrupled in number over the past four years and now account for nearly a quarter of the total, while the Chinese share has slipped to 42%.

Breakdown of Foreign Students by Nationality, 2016

Nationality Number Share
China 115,278 42%
Vietnam 62,422 23%
Nepal 22,967 8%
South Korea 15,438 6%
Taiwan 9,537 3%
Indonesia 5,607 2%
Sri Lanka 5,597 2%
Myanmar 4,553 2%
Thailand 4,376 2%
Malaysia 2,925 1%
Others 28,631 10%
Total 277,331 100%

Note: Figures are as of December 31, 2016.
Source: Ministry of Justice statistics.

Comments in the press and elsewhere suggest that interest in studying Japanese has grown as a result of the increased presence of Japanese companies in Asian countries like Vietnam. But this explanation completely misses the mark. The real motivation behind the growing influx of language students is the desire to make money here.

International students are allowed to work part-time for up to 28 hours a week. Brokers have set their eyes on this provision, drawing clients with advertising that suggests it is easy for international students in Japan to earn ¥200,000–¥300,000 a month at part-time jobs. Ordinary people’s monthly income in Vietnam is only about ¥10,000–¥20,000. So the prospect of earning more than 10 times as much naturally attracts applicants in droves. This has led to a “study in Japan” boom.

Borrowing Money and Using Brokers’ Services to Go to Japan

I have been researching this story for four years, and my conclusion is that among the rapidly rising numbers of students coming to Japan from Vietnam and Nepal, the majority are shams—people coming here because they want to make money. The door through which they get into Japan is provided by Japanese language schools, of which there are now more than 600 around the country, an increase of above 200 over the past decade. The “study in Japan” boom in Vietnam has led to a bubble in the establishment of such schools.

Applicants must pay around ¥1.5 million up front to cover their first-year tuition, brokers’ fees, and other expenses. This is a dizzying amount for ordinary Vietnamese. But they manage to come up with the necessary funds by taking out loans, using their family homes and fields as collateral. Vietnam’s emerging economy has been growing steadily, but life is still hard for the masses. So entire families will place their dreams in the prospect of big earnings from the person heading to Japan.

One of the conditions that the Japanese government imposes on those seeking student visas is that they be able to defray their expenses. Visas are granted only to those who can show their ability to pay their living costs and tuition without working. But in emerging countries like Vietnam, only those of the highly privileged classes can meet this requirement. So ordinary applicants end up paying bribes to have banks and government offices issue documents showing inflated figures for their bank balances and parents’ income levels.

This use of falsified documents is an open secret among Japanese language schools and the immigration officers issuing the visas. But both the schools and the immigration authorities ignore this deception, the former because they want to expand their business and the latter because they want to meet the target of 300,000 international students.

  • [2017.08.08]

Journalist. Born in Okayama Prefecture in 1965. Graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University. Worked as a reporter for the English-language Nikkei Weekly and served as a visiting researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington DC specializing in black American issues, before going freelance. His works include Rupo: Nippon zetsubō kōjō (Reportage: The Factories of Despair in Japan) and Chōju taikoku no kyokō: Gaikokujin kaigoshi no genba o ou (The Illusion of Japan as a Longevity: Looking at Foreign Elder-Care Workers on the Front Lines).

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