BY OSAMU TSUKIMORI, STAFF WRITER
When the COVID-19 pandemic decimated her family’s cattle farming business in Vietnam earlier this year, one 23-year-old foreign student who had spent around 18 months in Japan was soon left without the funds her family usually sent to cover her university tuition fees.
With Hanoi under a complete lockdown from February through April, she couldn’t return home. Forced out of the university’s animation studies program and no longer considered a student, she couldn’t work legally in Japan, either. Running out of money to live on, by September she could no longer pay rent and had to move to a nonprofit shelter.
So while a decision by immigration authorities on Monday allowing former students stuck in Japan to work up to 28 hours a week didn’t make big headlines, it was a moment of jubilation for the Vietnamese former student and others who share her predicament.
Vietnamese nationals make up the second-largest cohort among foreign students in Japan, with 73,389 enrolled on courses last year. The exact number of former students from overseas whose lives have been upended by the virus is unclear, but it is understood to be increasing.
Over the past eight years the number of foreign students in the nation has nearly doubled, totaling over 310,000 as of May last year. Many of them work part time, providing an essential workforce in convenience stores and restaurant chains as Japan’s own population rapidly grays and shrinks.
“I’d like to work part time again in Japan,” said the Vietnamese former student, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
For Jiho Yoshimizu, who oversees the shelter where she now lives, the new immigration rules also marked a major victory, after lobbying immigration authorities for over a month.
“This is a big deal,” Yoshimizu said, “as foreign students who quit school but are unable to return to their countries can now survive in Japan.”
Yoshimizu’s nonprofit, Japan Vietnam Mutual Support Association, in central Tokyo provides shelter to a number of foreign workers and former foreign students from Vietnam.
“They endured a triple whammy of no money and being unable to work or find a place to live. They had to move from one friend’s house to another, and eventually relied on our NPO for food and money,” Yoshimizu explained. “There are countless number of such students in distress.”
The only financial aid former foreign students has received from the government so far is the blanket ¥100,000 cash handouts distributed to all residents, including foreign nationals, earlier this year.
After flight restrictions were imposed worldwide amid the pandemic, the government had until last week authorized former students to work part time on a case-by-case basis, after taking into account special circumstances such as their inability to fly home. From Monday, those individual arrangements became a blanket rule.
A senior immigration agency official said they had received calls from local immigration bureaus asking if they could allow former foreign students to work in Japan in order to survive.
“We have allowed work authorization to former foreign students who graduated but are in trouble as they are unable to return home amid the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. “Taking into account the number of former foreign students who dropped out as they couldn’t pay tuition, we decided to expand the work authorization to all former foreign students regardless of whether or when they graduated from school, starting Monday.”
Under the new measures, all former foreign students who are unable to return home and wish to work in Japan are permitted to work for up to 28 hours each week for six months, with the possibility of an extension.