In the small portrait of him at his funeral, the young man was smiling. The funeral, held in November 2020 amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, was for a Vietnamese man who had died alone and emaciated in his workplace dormitory. It's suspected he was infected with the novel coronavirus.
Nguyen Ngoc Trong was a 24-year-old technical intern trainee at a coatings company in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. He left behind in Vietnam a wife one year younger than him and a 2-year-old son. "He was kind and always laughing," mourners said as they wiped away their tears.
Trong suffered health issues numerous times after coming to Japan two years ago, and as he was not fluent in Japanese, he had to be accompanied to hospital. Before passing away, he had been diagnosed with tonsillitis, anemia and other diseases. He also developed adverse symptoms in his lungs, but had tested negative for COVID-19 in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in October. For days his temperature would go down as he took medicine, but then symptoms of fever would arise a few days later.
But why did the young man have to die, and what was he feeling at the end of his life? Now unable to ask him, the Mainichi Shimbun turned to his chat history and statements from his bereaved family, among other records, to trace his final days.
On Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, Trong returned to his dorm on the second floor of the company's head office in Chiba after a business trip. His fever and cough worsened.
On the following day -- Thursday, Nov. 5 -- he informed the company president that he was "severely ill," but was told, "Are you going to come to work, or go back to your home country? Even if you go to the hospital, you're not going to recover." Trong showed up at work after taking two painkiller tablets.
By Friday, Nov. 6, Trong hadn't an ounce of strength left in his body, and his white pillow and bedding were covered in dark red blood from when he coughed. Although an employee confirmed this, the president's wife apparently said, "I'm not at work today," and didn't take Trong to the hospital.
The next day -- Saturday, Nov. 7 -- the president's wife took Trong to a nearby hospital which, to prevent in-hospital infections, wasn't doing X-ray examinations or blood tests for patients suspected of coronavirus infection. He received medication including antibiotics and a referral letter to another hospital. The president's wife bought him an onigiri rice ball, but he didn't have the energy to eat it even after it was soaked and softened in water.
In a text message to his wife Truong Thi Trang on Sunday, Nov. 8, Trong wrote, "I can't control my body." His wife's responses after this exchange were not marked "read." Trong vomited blood in front of a Vietnamese colleague who rushed to his side from a business trip, and was confirmed dead at hospital after being sent in an ambulance.
The result of the PCR test carried out immediately following Trong's death came back negative for COVID-19. The description in his medical certificate includes the terms "pneumonia, cardiopulmonary arrest." Although the cause of death was deemed "death from illness (suspected cardiac death)" in an investigation by public prosecutors at a later date, the bereaved family did not request a judicial autopsy and specific details are unknown.
After Trong's condition deteriorated, he was instructed by the company that he "must not contact or meet your friends." On the day before his death, prior to being brought to the hospital, he was initially told, "Go by bicycle. I'll drive and follow from behind."
The supervising organization for the intern program, which has a responsibility to protect technical intern trainees, received calls for help by Trong himself and his colleagues two days before he died. But the organization reportedly "asked" the company to take Trong to the hospital as his assigned interpreter had other tasks. The supervising organization commented, "One interpreter is responsible for one hundred to two hundred interns. Even if we can ask the company, we cannot order them to carry out a task."
The company did not respond to the Mainichi Shimbun's inquiries. However, there is a video of a tearful woman saying, "I'm sorry, Trong," while stroking his head as he lay in his coffin. The woman is reportedly the president's wife.
Trong grew up in an agricultural area said to be the poorest in Vietnam. He finished high school and worked in a village cafeteria, earning around 40,000 yen (about $387) per month. He married Trang, who he had known since childhood, and they welcomed a son not long after. They lived with Trong's mother, who cannot walk around freely, and were barely getting by. With the hope of working in Japan for his family, and returning home after acquiring skills, Trong moved to the country by making payments to an organization that sends out trainees for the intern program. To do it, he borrowed 600,000 yen (about $5,808) from the bank and relatives.
"There was a side of him that was too considerate of others. He had a personality that tended to put up with situations even it meant he ended up losing out," Trang said, expressing how she had been worrying about her beloved, kind-hearted husband. There had apparently been an incident in which he was swindled out of 250,000 yen (about $2,420) in Japan when trying to send it to his family, but she didn't divulge any further details. It may be that Trong's habit of enduring situations led to the tragedy of his disease.
"I still can't believe he died. He was a kid who took the lead on tasks that others avoided," said Yoshiaki Kawasaki, 55, a resident of the city of Nakama, Fukuoka Prefecture, in southwestern Japan, who the reporter contacted after hearing that there was a man whom Trong affectionately referred to as his "father in Japan."
In 2019, Kawasaki, who made rounds of nationwide construction sites as a skilled painter, met Trong, who had been dispatched to a power plant in the northern Japan prefecture of Akita. The pair slept and ate in the same lodging for nearly half a year. After work, Trong would on his way back stop by a supermarket next to the lodging. His usual dinner consisted of discounted packages of prepared side dishes with udon noodles, which cost 20 yen per serving, topped with soy sauce. Kawasaki remembered clearly the way Trong would praise his son's daily development on video calls with his wife.
Kawasaki often took Trong to hot springs and holiday resorts on their days off. He said that he cannot forget the time when Trong said excitedly, "This is good, really good," after having soft-serve ice cream from the highlands, likely for the first time. Trong was also often mistaken for Kawasaki's son. For Kawasaki, who is single and has no children, Trong was a son-like presence.
The two kept in touch even after Trong completed his work in Akita. In autumn 2020, when he was trying to buy medicine for anemia, he sent Kawaski a photo in a chat of the product, and asked, "Anemia medicine! (Is this it?)" But he held back on telling him about his worsening health. Kawasaki was unable to get through to Trong in his most recent video call on Nov. 6, and a friend informed him of his death three days later.
A while before Trong's death, there had been numerous reports of a group of Vietnamese nationals, who were former technical intern trainees, being arrested in connection with livestock robberies and other charges. Trong was reportedly pained at the news, and had said, "I'm ashamed as a Vietnamese person. Their purposes of coming to Japan are training or work. What are those people doing, even though everyone is working hard?"
Technical intern trainees have effectively been supporting Japan's industries, which are suffering labor shortages. Kawasaki said, "Vietnamese laborers are present not only in the field, but also in this lodging too, as well as the convenience store right around the corner." Above all, Trong lived in Japan, and led his life while firmly rooted in society as an individual. Should the death of such an individual be written off as "a distance story involving a foreigner who came to Japan as a migrant worker"?
Kawasaki rushed to Trong's funeral after a six-hour-long road trip from Aichi Prefecture in central Japan. Half of the some 50 attendants were people affiliated with the company, while the other half was Trong's Vietnamese friends. Kawasaki also caught sight of Japanese colleagues in their work uniforms who seem to have hurried to the funeral from where they are employed. Each individual at the funeral mourned the death of the young man, who they lived together with, and who was loved by all.
The funeral lasted just over an hour. In their closing remarks, the monk said, "He lived in Japan for two years, and said that he loved Japan." Stifled sobs could be heard from those present.
(Japanese original by Shohei Oshima, City News Department)