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Japan students struggle to get by, lose opportunities as virus limits finances and study

Ami Ikeue, a third-year student at Nara Women's University, is seen speaking about how her financial situation has settled somewhat after receiving a government handout, in the western Japan city of Nara, on June 25, 2020. (Mainichi/Mizuki Hayashi)

NARA -- Students in the western Japan prefecture of Nara are feeling the pinch as the spread of novel coronavirus infections both upends household finances and limits hiring for part-time jobs.

With Nara Prefecture experiencing a resurgence in infections, it appears that students will struggle under difficult circumstances for some time, as online classes and large amounts of homework make their own heavy contribution to the stresses created by the additional changes in lifestyle. Some students have even been forced to give up their dreams of studying abroad.

"I can't focus on my studies because I'm worried about money," said Ami Ikeue, 22, a third-year literature major at Nara Women's University. She has been digging into her savings of 100,000 yen, which she had intended to use for job hunting next year. Although she covers her living expenses with funds from a scholarship and part-time work she's done since entering college, she said that since April she's no longer been getting enough shifts from either of her jobs at a university library and at a souvenir shop in a hotel. To cut down on living costs, she said she's been avoiding shopping and eating out, and has been cooking her own meals.

Ikeue also applied for the novel coronavirus relief handout of 100,000 yen per person, as well as an emergency allowance provided by the national government for students struggling financially amid the pandemic. She finally received the aid at the end of June, but voiced her concern, saying, "I can't say I feel secure, especially considering that second and third waves of infections may come in future. I also have friends around me who are having a hard time, and they're even more worried than I am about getting by day-to-day."

Her spring semester courses have all been held online. Although she has finally gotten the hang of them, she scrambles to complete the large volumes of assignments every day. She also spoke about her emotional strain from the stress of leading a life confined indoors most of the time. She said she keenly felt the preciousness of everyday life that she had taken for granted, and added, "I realized I had been able to work hard because I was motivated by seeing friends on campus every day."

Students from overseas studying in Japan are also living with anxiety due to the present irregular circumstances. Among them is Sharon Kuan Zia Yee, 23, a student from Malaysia who has been studying at Nara University of Education since last September. Zia Yee said, "It's like spring break has been going on forever." She studied hard to get the opportunity to experience culture and life in Japan, something she had dearly wanted to do. But now she says her opportunities to speak Japanese in and out of university have decreased remarkably. She went on to say, "I feel connections between people are becoming weak. It's not good at all."

Chisae Shimada, 20, a third-year student at the same university who assists foreign students in their daily lives and studies, said, "I'm worried, as we have not been able to support students in their studies and daily lives as we usually would." Shimada's plans to study abroad in Shanghai from this autumn have also been called off, in an experience she found very disappointing. "Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime event. Although I understand the difficulties faced by the university, I would like it if they could provide a little bit more follow-up support, like considering alternative plans."

Apart from taking preventative measures against infection by prohibiting entry into campus and holding online classes, universities in western Japan have also been lending financial support, such as by establishing foundations to support students struggling to get by.

Tenri University and Tezukayama University have decided to give handouts of 30,000 yen to all students, with the money intended to cover expenses incurred when preparing learning environments at home, such as by setting up Wi-Fi connections or buying other tools necessary for online classes. Tenri University has provided the handouts to 2,625 students as of July 15, and Tezukayama University gave them to its entire student body of some 3,700 people at the end of June.

Nara Women's University has established a financial support system for its students, and collected around 10 million yen (around $93,200) in donations from alumni and other parties. The funds are reportedly being used to provide students with the necessary money for study-related expenses such as photocopying study materials, half-price co-op bento lunch boxes, and part-time work opportunities at the university.

(Japanese original by Mizuki Hayashi, Nara Bureau)

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