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COVID isolating foreign residents in Japan, some contemplating suicide

A Vietnamese woman is seen in her apartment in Kobe's Higashinada Ward on April 5, 2022. (Mainichi/Kotaro Ono)

KOBE -- A fair number of foreign nationals in Japan have been growing emotionally unstable amid the coronavirus pandemic, and some 20% of respondents to a survey targeting Vietnamese residents answered that they had thought of taking their own lives.

    An expert believes that behind this reality is the tendency for foreigners to become isolated in Japan, as they are away from their home country and do not have family or other loved ones near them.

    Late at night on March 3, a 24-year-old Vietnamese woman living in Kobe's Higashinada Ward resorted to self-harm in a six-tatami mat studio apartment. Fortunately, her life was not in danger and she was spared a hospital visit.

    Half a day earlier, a 24-year-old Vietnamese man who lived with her was arrested by Hyogo Prefectural Police on suspicion of theft right before her eyes. He has been accused of stealing supplements and other items at a drugstore in the city of Himeji.

    The woman came to Japan in 2017. She dreamed of living here and enrolled herself in a language school in the city of Osaka after borrowing around 800,000 yen (about $6,400) from a bank. She graduated from the school in the following spring and went on to a vocational school in Kobe.

    She did part-time work day-in, day-out in order to pay off her debts, but she did not make any close friends. After the eatery she worked at suspended business amid the pandemic, she shut herself in her apartment and was all alone. Although she graduated from the vocational school and tried to return to Vietnam, her home country refused arrivals from overseas due to the coronavirus.

    She resumed part-time work, and in the summer of 2021, while she was feeling lonely, she met the Vietnamese man through an acquaintance and the two began dating. They began living together in January. Just when they agreed to get married, the man was arrested. The woman, who could not afford a plane ticket back home, could not bear the feeling of loneliness that overcame her once she began to live by herself again. On impulse, she cut her left wrist with a kitchen knife, but came to her senses and stopped upon seeing blood.

    Though she cannot envision a bright future, she has to make a living. She currently works at a makeup manufacturing factory during the day, and at a restaurant at night. Her monthly income of around 130,000 yen (about $1,050) is almost all used up to pay rent and return her debts. She only eats one meal per day at the restaurant that offers workers meals, and eats ice cream or snacks when hungry.

    According to sources close to the investigation, the woman's former partner came to Japan in 2018 as a technical intern trainee. Hyogo Prefectural Police suspect that after he went missing from his workplace in Okinawa Prefecture, he repeatedly carried out over 100 cases of theft in west and central Japan, and are investigating the possibility of other crimes he has committed.

    The woman has no Japanese friends, and claims that she cannot approach and talk to Japanese people because her Japanese is bad. She also knew nothing of her former partner's background. She currently wishes to go back to her home country as soon as possible.

    Tadashi Yamashita, a 39-year-old lecturer at Kobe City College of Nursing, pointed out that the coronavirus is one factor contributing to the deepening isolation of foreigners in Japan. A group including the university conducted an online survey between September and October 2021 targeting 621 Vietnamese residents in Japan to ask them about their mental state.

    A total of 149 people, or 24%, said they had thought before that they are "better off dead," or had thought about harming themselves through some sort of method. Responses to questions regarding fatigue, insomnia and other factors found that 203 respondents, or 32.7%, had symptoms of depression. To the question, "Do you have someone you can talk to about your own health?" 433 people, or 69.7%, answered "No."

    Yamashita explained that many foreign nationals do not have relatives near them, have weak ties with the community, and their human relationships are limited to their workplaces, schools, etc. He believes that "on top of worsening concerns over life (due to job loss or falling income caused by the pandemic) there has been an increase in people who are isolated."

    Furthermore, information for assistance does not easily reach such individuals due to linguistic barriers. Yamashita said, "Administrative bodies and support groups need to send out information utilizing social media and cooperate with Vietnamese resident communities and other parties to identify people who are isolated."

    (Japanese original by Kotaro Ono, Kobe Bureau)

    -- Suicide prevention hotline in Japan with English support

    TELL Japan (English):

    Telephone hotline: 03-5774-0992 (Daily)

    Online chat:

    Counseling inquiries: 03-4550-1146 (Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.)

    A selection of emergency numbers with multilingual support are also provided at the bottom of their home page.

    *Operating hours for the telephone hotline and online chat depend on the day and are subject to change. Check the Facebook page linked below for up-to-date information:

    * * *

    Yorisoi Hotline

    Free telephone consultations: 0120-279-338 (Mon.-Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m., 4 p.m.-10 p.m., or 10 a.m.-4 p.m.)

    More information can be found here:

    * * *

    Foreign Residents Support Center (FRESC) help desk for foreign nationals who have lose their jobs or whose lives have been affected by COVID-19

    0120-76-2029 (Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.)

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