Vietnamese students left in limbo in Japan

Japan is currently home to some 310,000 international students. Nearly a quarter of them are from Vietnam, and the coronavirus pandemic has cost many of them their part-time jobs and forced them to drop out of school. To make matters worse, Vietnam's entry restrictions are also making it almost impossible to fly home.

Trieu Linh Linh, 24, had no choice but to quit her vocational school in Niigata Prefecture three months ago when she found herself unable to pay the annual tuition fees of 750,000 yen, or around 7,000 dollars. She had been working part-time at a packing plant until the pandemic shut it down.

Trieu had planned to find salaried work to support her family back home after graduating, but can't even pay her rent now, is 2 million yen -- or 19,000 dollars in debt -- and has been staying with a series of friends.

Systemic problem

Another difficulty Trieu faces is rooted in the system through which she came to Japan. When she had an international student visa, she was able to work 28 hours per week, but government rules say that if foreign students leave school, they can no longer work at all. It's designed to force them to leave Japan as soon as possible.

"My parents are worried I may starve to death if the situation continues, but I can't possibly get them into more debt," says Trieu. "I have to deal with this on my own, but with so much uncertainty I'm just getting more and more worried."

Trieu Linh Linh
24-year-old Trieu Linh Linh came to Japan from Vietnam two years ago as an international student.

Nguyen Ngoc Nga, 21, came to Japan two years ago on a partial scholarship. She was working part-time while studying animation at a university in Okayama Prefecture, but she was kicked out after failing to pay her tuition fees in full.

The university recommended that she immediately return to her country, but Vietnam currently receives very few flights from Japan. She managed to scrape together 40,000 yen, or 380 dollars, to buy a plane ticket, but the flight was canceled.

Life on the edge

According to the Embassy of Vietnam in Japan, there are more than 20,000 citizens waiting to repatriate from Japan, with little prospect of doing so for the international students among them. Vietnam's government is prioritizing the return of people such as those who are ill or pregnant, with international students at the back of the line.

Nguyen Ngoc Nga
21-year-old Nguyen Ngoc Nga was studying animation at a university in Okayama Prefecture.

The Japan Vietnam Mutual Support Association offers support to Vietnamese people in Japan. Representative director Yoshimizu Jiho says since March of this year her organization has advised more than 1,300 people, including international students, and provided accommodation for 180 people who've lost their homes.

The Immigration Service Agency of Japan announced in October that it has changed the system so that students who have been forced to leave school due to the effects of the new coronavirus can work as normal again to earn a living until they can go home.

But Yoshimizu says these measures are not enough. "Many Vietnamese students are still being forced to give up their studies in Japan," she says. "The Japanese government should take drastic measures, such as improving the scholarship system, not just this temporary fix."