By Idei Yasuhiro, journalist
Which group of foreigners is least protected in Japan in terms of human rights? The answer is “fake” international students who come to Japan from Asian developing countries, ostensibly as international students, to work.
International students are allowed to work “up to 28 hours per week” by law. Fake international students attempt to use “study abroad” as a means to work abroad, however, and they are exploited and suffer many human rights abuses while in Japan. Their situation is much more dire than that of technical trainees.
The number of international students in Japan grew from 180,919 at the end of 2012 to 345,791 at the end of 2019, an almost twofold increase. The doubling is due to the rapid rise in the number of Asian students due to the Japanese government’s “plan to attract 300,000 international students.” The number of Vietnamese students grew ninefold, from 8,811 to 79,292 over those same years, while the number of Nepalese students grew sixfold from 4,793 to 29,417. Many of these students were actually fake students.
Study abroad in Japan requires about 1.5 million yen to cover the tuition to attend a Japanese language school for a year, housing, and fees paid to a broker. Fake students take out loans to cover these costs.
In principle, people who need to take out loans to study abroad are not viewed as the target audience for student visas. The number of international students in Japan did not increase, however, and the 300,000 international student plan was not seen to be achievable if this principle were upheld. Therefore, the Japanese government bent the rules and issued student visas en masse.
People from developing nations who wish to study in Japan need to show that they have financial means. They need to present proof of their parents’ income and a bank statement showing their savings when applying for a visa. The fake students prepare falsified documents. They pay bribes to government offices and banks via the broker, to obtain documents showing incomes higher than their actual incomes.
The falsified document may show that the annual income of a Vietnamese peasant, who actually makes less than 300,000 yen, is “3 million yen.” This should make officials doubt the document’s authenticity. The Immigration Services Agency (ISA) and Japanese embassies have looked the other way, however, in order to achieve the goal of attracting 300,000 international students. Thinking of their own profit, Japanese schools have turned a blind eye as well and have continued to accept fake international students.
The fake students take part-time jobs after they arrive in Japan. They can find jobs even with poor Japanese-language skills. Typically, they sort packages for couriers or work at factories that produce bento-box meals and prepared food, which is sold at convenience stores and supermarkets. Such jobs pay minimum wage.
With a part-time job, they work “less than 28 hours per week” by law and make less than 100,000 yen a month. With this kind of pay, it would be difficult for students to pay back their loans and save enough for the following year’s tuition. Thus, fake international students work multiple part-time jobs, which means they work in excess of the legal limit.
Not all students work the full 28 hours per week, but many international students work close to the legal limit. The number of international students who work illegally is clearly not “just a fraction.”
The Japanese language school industry gained the most from the influx of fake international students. There were 800 Japanese language schools in Japan as of the end of 2019, double the number 10 years prior. Many are schools in name only, and are only interested in boosting their enrolment and profit.
Japanese language schools are afraid that their students will fail to pay tuition or run away. A school will have to answer to the ISA and face restrictions on their acceptance of new students if many of their students run away and stay illegally in Japan. Therefore, schools expel students who look like they will not be able to pay tuition. It is commonplace for schools to physically restrain international students, take them to the airport, and forcibly send them back to their home countries.
I recently did some reporting on a major Japanese language school. This school used to withhold the “certificate of graduation” or “proof of attendance and grades,” which international students need to work or enroll at a different school, and thereby force students to enroll at one of the vocational schools operated by the same parent company as the language school. The company continues to obtain tuition payments if students continue to enroll at one of their schools. As a result, many international students were blocked from pursuing their desired career path.
The living conditions of international students are terrible. Companies that hire technical trainees are required by law to provide housing with “one or two people per room,” but there are no regulations regarding housing for international students.
The housing situation I investigated had four bunk beds in one room for seven students, and over 20 students in a three-bedroom house. The international students had to pay 30,000 yen each per month for this housing.
This is an issue that the mainstream media should take up and look into. Although newspapers often write on the technical trainees, they do not mention international students at all. Why is that the case?
Newspaper delivery outlets in urban areas lack Japanese workers and cannot operate without the part-time labor of international students. Many international students work more than the legal limit of “28 hours per week” but are not paid for overtime. Paying overtime would amount to admitting that they employ people in an unlawful way.
I have repeatedly raised this issue for several years, but the situation has not improved. Newspapers take the position that this is “the delivery outlets’ issue” and ignore the core issue of fake international students. Mention of this issue in newspapers may negatively affect their delivery services. As a result, the situation of the international students is not widely known.
The issue of fake international students is complex because they cannot simply be called “victims.” They have committed a crime by obtaining a visa using falsified documents and working illegally in Japan. That is why they can be taken advantage of. (Abridged)