Foreign students in Japan in dire straits amid pandemic

"If I get kicked out of university, everything will come to nothing. I feel desperate."
A Vietnamese student at a university in Tokyo, who requested anonymity because she doesn't want people to worry about her, shared her story with NHK.

She has been paying university tuition and living expenses by working part-time, but her income has fallen sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic. Without any means of covering her university fees, dropping out is becoming a real possibility.

She has not received any money from her family back home since she came to Japan five years ago. Working part-time at a Japanese pub, she used to make around 100,000 yen, or about 950 dollars, a month. This is as much as she could earn because the law does not allow students to work more than 28 hours a week.

She lives in an apartment in Saitama Prefecture. To keep her expenses down, she lives with her sister, who is four years younger and goes to a Japanese language school, as well as two other Vietnamese. After tuition fees, rent and utility bills are paid, she is left with only about 10,000 to 20,000 yen each month.

Dream becomes a nightmare

Her dream is to work at a Japanese company. Hoping to become involved in international business in the future, she is also studying Chinese. Since she came to Japan, she has not once returned home. Instead, she has been devoting her time to studying and her job.

"In Vietnam, no matter how hard you study, it’s hard to land a job without money or connections," she says. "When I came to Japan, I made up my mind not to go back until I became independent here."

But the coronavirus pandemic has made her life extremely difficult. Her income from the part-time job has dropped to almost half. She has barely been getting by through growing her own vegetables or saving money by not using air-conditioning. She was able to pay her tuition for the first semester with a government handout related to the pandemic and other assistance for foreign students, but she has no idea how to pay for the second semester. This is on top of around 19,000 dollars she borrowed to come to Japan.

"Since many people have supported me in Japan, I want to work here and repay the favor," she says. "But this is too hard, and I don't think I can hold out much longer."

Her apartment
She shares an apartment with her sister and two other people.

Pitching in to help

To offer help to foreign students like her, Nguyen Van Thuc, a 28-year-old IT company employee in Chiba Prefecture, has started a crowdfunding project.

As a student, he too used to scrape by, working part-time to clear his debts of more than 1 million yen, or 9,500 dollars, while paying university fees and rent. He says he can understand what foreign students are going through right now, forced to cut down on their part-time work due to the pandemic.

His project has collected more than 750,000 yen, exceeding the target of 500,000 yen. But that is far from enough to support the 70,000-plus Vietnamese students in Japan.

"I want more people to understand that Vietnamese students are struggling to live in Japan," he says.

Calling for the government and schools to support students

Yoshimizu Jiho is the head of the Japan Vietnam Mutual Support Association, an NPO providing support to Vietnamese in Japan. She has been receiving desperate calls from Vietnamese students. Unable to pay course fees, some of them have had to leave Japanese language schools, lost places to stay and sought temporary protection.

"Many foreign students are finding it increasingly hard to survive each day," she says. "Continuous support from the government is indispensable. Schools should also initiate more flexible measures, such as extending deadlines for the payment of course fees."