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Japan's livestock thefts and struggling foreign workers: Alienated abroad (Pt. 3)

A Vietnamese former technical intern trainee is s seen reflecting on their time in Japan, in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Nakagawa)

If a foreign technical intern trainee's permitted period of residence in Japan expires while they have disappeared from their designated place of work, they can be put in detention and forcibly returned to their home country. But even this process has been affected by the coronavirus crisis.

    In the third and final part of this in-depth look into the spate of livestock thefts that took place across the northern Kanto region this year, and the lives of the Vietnamese nationals arrested on suspicion of acts related to the incidents, the Mainichi Shimbun examines how the changes wrought by the virus have exacerbated problems for people in Japan occupying insecure positions.

    Flights are limited, and with the chances of returning to one's home country now harder to come by, the Immigration Services Agency of Japan has been actively letting detainees at its detention facilities out under the temporary release system as part of its virus prevention measures. Typically, the chance to leave detention is administered once certain conditions are met. Temporary releases in April of this year stood at 563 -- three to four times higher than the monthly average of temporary releases in 2019.

    But because people in temporary release are subject to rules forbidding them from getting work, they find themselves forced into even graver economic situations once they're let out.

    One of the people facing this reality is a 28-year-old former technical intern trainee from Vietnam. He told the Mainichi Shimbun on Nov. 9 that he wanted to go home as soon as possible, and through tears recounted the four years he had spent in Japan.

    He came to Japan in October 2016, after getting together a loan of some 800,000 yen (about $7,694). He was employed at a company in southwestern Japan's Kumamoto Prefecture that made plastic farming huts. The accommodation provided to him by his employer was a part of a container made into a room, which he lived in cheek by jowl with two others. Their shower was set up outside the container, in a plastic tent. Winters in their living quarters were cold, with freezing winds blowing in.

    Each month they were afforded only around four days off. Their monthly wages came in at around 90,000 to 100,000 yen (about $866 to $962), and of that money 20,000 (some $192) was paid back to the employer for their accommodation, leaving them with only about 70,000 yen (around $673) a month.

    His Japanese colleagues spoke the local Kumamoto dialect, and when he wouldn't understand and asked back about what they'd said, their colleagues would throw construction-grade bolts at them. Although he complained to the head of the company to improve the working environment, they didn't take up his suggestions.

    The scene of a crime in which a manager was stabbed to death at a hotel in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, is seen on Sept. 10, 2020. A disappeared technical intern trainee was arrested in connection with the case on suspicion of robbery causing death or injury. (Mainichi/Takashi Kawachi)

    In September 2017, just as he was coming up to a year in Japan, he was suddenly told by his employer to return to Vietnam the next week. He still had debts, and to avoid worrying his parents, who live in a farming village, he had been telling them he had a good job and that everything was fine. He thought that if he was going to keep working in Japan, he had no choice but to run away. He engaged the help of a Vietnamese friend living in east Japan's Tochigi Prefecture, and disappeared from his place of work.

    In Tochigi, he used a social media page for members of a Vietnamese community to find temporary job postings, and also paid a recruiter an introductory fee to get work. He got the money for the introductory fee by working out a deal with a friend, and repaid the debt with the earnings he made on the job. He worked hard just to make enough money to support himself.

    Then, one day everything suddenly changed. In July of this year, while he was out in the Saitama Prefecture city of Kumagaya, where he lived and had found work at a welding plant, police stopped him in the street for questioning. They discovered he was staying in the country illegally, and arrested him on suspicion of breaking the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. Later on, he was deemed eligible under the conditions for temporary release from a government detention center.

    Because getting a job is forbidden under the conditions of temporary release, he turned to the Vietnamese Dai An pagoda, in the Saitama Prefecture city of Honjo, for shelter. Due to the effects of the new coronavirus pandemic, there are just two flights a month from Japan to Vietnam. The 28-year-old man waited over a month to be able to return home, which he finally did on Nov. 14.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, as of July 2020 there were 12,457 former technical intern trainees -- including those out on temporary leave -- illegally overstaying. Of that number, 8,770 people, some 70%, are from Vietnam.

    Mai Thi Dung, who works at the nonprofit organization "the association to protect young Asian people" which engages in consultations and support for Vietnamese students and technical intern trainees looking for work, told the Mainichi Shimbun: "Former technical intern trainees who disappear from their jobs due to unavoidable circumstances and then end up on temporary release aren't even allowed to work. At the very least, isn't it necessary for them to have some kind of opportunity to be employed above board?"

    Recently, there has been a stream of incidents in which it appears Vietnamese technical intern trainees were involved.

    At a hotel in the east Japan city of Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, a manager was stabbed to death with a bladed object, and money stolen from her office. A Vietnamese person was arrested on suspicion of robbery causing death or injury and their case sent to prosecutors on the same charges. The individual was a technical intern trainee, who had escaped from their job at a metalworks in west Japan's Nara Prefecture, and ended up in Gunma.

    On Oct. 28, 10 Vietnamese men and women living in Saitama, Gunma and other areas were arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department on suspicion of contravening the Anti-Drug Special Provisions Act by reportedly having stimulants and other substances in their possession. According to a Japanese man who knows some of the arrested individuals, one of the people taken by authorities had been working at a construction company as a technical intern trainee.

    Under the idea of developing their skills, Vietnamese technical intern trainees cross the sea to come to Japan. The vast majority engage honestly with their work. But some are used simply as objects for labor, and become even more isolated due to a lack of communication with the people around them, until they run away from their jobs, face economic hardship, and live in collusion with other technical intern trainees who encountered similar treatment.

    A chief investigator at Gunma Prefectural Police sounded alarm, saying, "Measures must be taken swiftly to stop these people from being isolated in this country. If it doesn't happen, it's not out of the question that incidents involving these young technical trainees will increase."

    (Japanese original by Hinako Kikuchi and Naomichi Senoo, Maebashi Bureau, and Yuki Nakagawa, Saitama Bureau)

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