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One meal a day: Int'l student in Japan struggles with poverty amid job shortages

A university student is seen contacting his parents in Mongolia on his smartphone in Tokyo, on June 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Shunsuke Sekiya)

TOKYO -- A fourth-year university student who is from Mongolia and living in Tokyo is struggling to make ends meet after he lost his part-time job at a convenience store and 100-yen shop amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    The 21-year-old says he can only afford one meal a day and has been receiving daily phone calls from a rental guarantee firm after he fell a month behind on his apartment rent. He said of the current circumstances, "I made it all the way to Japan but it's extremely unfortunate," as he dropped his head low.

    The student yearned to live in Japan after residing in the country for three years when he was in elementary school because of his father's job. He studied Japanese and passed the N2 (second highest) level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, and moved to Japan three years ago, and is studying business at university. The student is fluent in Japanese, having passed the N1 level test when he was in his second year of university.

    Under Japanese laws, foreign students are allowed to work up to 28 hours a week. The Mongol student has had part-time jobs mainly at convenience stores since he entered school in Japan and made around 80,000 yen (about $729) a month. From that, he has managed to pay rent, bills for utilities and telecommunications and for food. His parents borrow money to cover his university tuition, about 800,000 yen a year, so he cannot expect them to send him money.

    He was only just scraping by, and then the pandemic hit. The number of customers at the convenience store plummeted during Japan's first COVID-19 state of emergency in spring last year because the store was located in an office building. He was working four times a week before the pandemic, but his shift was reduced to once a week. Thinking he wouldn't be able to make ends meet if the work schedule continued like this, he had no choice but to quit the job there.

    He subsequently started working at a 100-yen shop, but he found himself assigned at the cashier, where he had to stand all day, far longer than his Japanese colleagues. He went to the store manager about it and asked for improvements in the work environment, but to no avail. Unable to stand the working conditions there, he left the job in mid-March this year. But then there was no work for him. He applied for other part-time positions but it resulted in rejection after rejection, with many employers saying they were cutting down human resources costs due to the coronavirus.

    The student was unable to pay the rent for May, which was due at the end of April. Even though it was the first time he fell behind on rent, the rental guarantee firm started calling him every day about the payment, asking him when he could pay and telling him that they would terminate his rental contract if he couldn't pay by a certain date.

    "I ask them to wait but all they say is 'When can you pay?' Now I'm too afraid to answer the phone," the student told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    He doesn't have much interaction with other students, since his classes have been online since last spring, and he hasn't joined any school clubs as most of his time has been taken up with studying and working. He wants to work in the information technology industry and was going to start full-time job hunting. With no cash in hand, however, he can't even pay for transportation fees to move around within Tokyo.

    He barely manages to eat one meal a day, sometimes by cooking rice and eating it with ready-to-eat pouch curry, or buying cheap meat at grocery stores and cooking it at home.

    "I'm paying for food and utility bills with my credit card for now. The payment for it is almost due, but I don't have money in my bank account," he said, with an uneasy expression.

    He finally found a convenience store job in late May and now is working three times a week including a night shift between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. He won't get paid in full until July 10.

    "I talk to my parents on (the free messaging app) Line, but they're worried about me, asking me if I'm doing all right and telling me to hang in there," the student says. "I feel anxious if I can start full-time job hunting."

    According to the Japan Student Services Organization, the number of foreign students in Japan totaled 279,597 as of May 1, 2020, down 10.4% compared to the same period in the previous year. In the survey conducted by the organization in February and March 2020 over the living conditions of privately funded international students, some 70% said they worked part time.

    A source related to a Japanese language school told the Mainichi Shimbun that foreign students have been losing their part-time jobs mainly in the restaurant and logistics industries due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and since there are only a few hiring offers, they are having a hard time finding a new job.

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Sekiya, Tokyo City News Department)

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