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Working too much - or not enough - forces foreign students to give up studying in Japan

Ngoc Ha Pham Thi, a Vietnamese national who studied at a university in Japan, reflects on her life in the country at the Kibi Covenant Christ Church in the city of Okayama's Kita Ward, on July 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Kwanghoon Han)

KOBE -- Work too much, and you could violate Japan's student visa conditions; work too little, and you may not be able to pay your way to study here at all. That's the fine line many foreign students have to walk in Japan, and more than a few of them stumble.

    "The status of your past stay in the country cannot be judged as favorable." So read the notice that a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman living in Kobe's Hyogo Ward received from the Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau's local branch on April 13. The letter went on to say that she would not be permitted to renew her student visa. The woman had graduated from a Japanese language school in March, and planned to major in accounting at a vocational school from April. "I did all that work so I could go to school..." The letter cast a dark shadow on the student's future.

    The student's application was denied because she had worked more than the 28 hours per week permitted to foreign students under the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

    This April 28, 2020 image taken in Kobe's Chuo Ward shows the residency status card of a foreign student which was returned with a hole punched in it after her application to renew her student visa was denied. (Mainichi/Kwanghoon Han)

    "I juggled several part-time jobs to earn money to pay for school," she said. Now, she has been severed from her dream of pursuing accounting in Japan, and the temporary shutdown of schools in general amid the coronavirus pandemic eliminated any chance of studying at all.

    The 25-year-old came to Japan in January 2019, and had been earning around 150,000 yen (about $1,422) per month through her jobs at a bento lunchbox factory and a nursing home, while also attending Japanese language school. The woman had to earn 70,000 yen ($665) to cover her living costs and part of her school-related expenses, as well as an entrance fee and the tuition for vocational school totaling 390,000 yen (about $3,697), due by September 2019.

    She could only squeeze out the money by cutting back on food spending, and working 150 hours a month. "I knew of the '28 hours per week' rule, and I'm in the wrong for exceeding the limit. But, I needed money to go to school," said the woman. The Vietnamese national lost her residency status as a foreign student, and switched to a "designated activities" visa in the latter half of May. She continues to work at the nursing home.

    According to a Japan Student Services Organization survey, 75% of foreign students in the country had part-time jobs as of 2017. Toshiaki Torimoto, head of a Hyogo-based nonprofit organization that works to promote cultural exchange between Vietnam and Japan, commented, "Countries like Vietnam are poor compared to Japan, and there are many foreign students who don't have scholarships or support from their families. The reality is that they have to earn cash to cover living and academic expenses on their own."

    There are also cases of foreign students spiraling into debt because they cannot earn enough money within the 28-hour-per-week limit to stay afloat. Ngoc Ha Pham Thi, 26, a Vietnamese national who was studying at International Pacific University in the city of Okayama until January 2020, dropped out just before she was to graduate after struggling to balance study and work. She trusted a brokerage agency that told her, "In Japan, you can earn 200,000 yen per month while going to school." She paid the agency 1 million yen (about $9,480) prior to her arrival in 2013, she says, but "realized it wasn't true after coming to Japan."

    Pham Thi went from job to job at bento lunchbox factories and izakaya pubs while abiding by the 28-hour limit for foreign students, but barely managed to make 100,000 yen (about $948) a month. After graduating from a Japanese language school and a vocational school in Tokyo, she went to a four-year university during which time she got into a cycle of borrowing money -- 50,000 to 100,000 yen per month -- from relatives and friends, and then returning it. She began to skip class due to lack of sleep. She hit a wall in November 2019, when her grandmother passed away back home.

    "Life in Japan has tired me out," said Pham Thi. Her seven years as a student in Japan were marked by overwork as she strived to earn enough to keep studying. She reflected, "I didn't know that it would cost much more than what I'd estimated before coming to Japan. I thought that in Japan, I would be able to study without worrying or burdening my parents."

    Foreign student numbers in Japan have been rising, including those from Vietnam, Nepal, and Myanmar. There are more than 10,000 of them in Hyogo Prefecture alone, and they support Japanese society as convenience store and restaurant workers while earning the cash they need to live and go to school. At the same time, they are in vulnerable positions as individuals living in a foreign country, and many of them struggle financially or with conflict with their universities or schools.

    (Japanese original by Kwanghoon Han, Kobe Bureau)

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