New rules requiring greater scrutiny of applicants from five countries have landed Japanese-language schools with that little bit more paperwork.
In February, the Immigration Bureau announced tightened rules starting in July for Japanese-language schools admitting students from Vietnam, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The rules, which apply to schools that in 2015 had more than 10 students from the five countries expelled or drop out for any reason, require that new applicants from those countries submit additional proof of their financial means as part of their applications. About half of the nation’s 549 Japanese-language schools must now follow the stricter prerequisites.
Until this year, language school applicants had to submit only a bank statement showing they had access to sufficient funds to study in Japan. Under the new rule, students from the five countries must provide additional information about account deposits and withdrawals.
Why the government picked 10 students as the cut-off is unclear. The figure doesn’t take into account the size of the language school; neither did the Ministry of Justice publicize its reasoning. Questioned by a Nishi Nippon Shimbun reporter, an Immigration Bureau spokesperson admitted no single reason accounted for the figure of 10, but said the rounded figure would put more than half of such schools in the bureau’s crosshairs.
Critics of the plan also say the reasons for singling out these five countries have not been clearly explained. However, in February the Nishi Nippon Shimbun quoted a Justice Ministry official as saying, “There are a lot of international students from these five countries, and the number of these students who are illegally staying in Japan is increasing.”
A look at foreign student statistics confirms the Justice Ministry’s first claim: The five countries are the source for most language school students in Japan. Four out of the five have also seen a recent explosion in the number of students coming here to learn Japanese.
First-placed Vietnam showed a 35 percent rise between fiscal 2015 and 2016 to reach 25,228 students. Second-placed China saw a 21 percent increase to 23,221 students, fourth-placed Sri Lanka had an 86 percent surge to 2,071, and seventh-placed Myanmar posted a 60 percent gain, accounting for 1,772 students. Taiwan and South Korea, in fifth and sixth place, didn’t receive extra scrutiny as numbers from those countries have remained relatively stable.
Third-placed Nepal is the only one of the five countries to see a decline in the number of language school learners entering Japan last year. Nepalese already faced tightened restrictions on student visas. The government reduced the number of visas issued to Nepalese students in response to increasing numbers of learners working more than the 28-hours-per-week government limit. From 2015 to 2016 the number of Nepalese students studying at language schools declined 20 percent, falling to 6,015.
The Okinawa Times reported in March that only 33 percent of Nepalese who received Certificates of Eligibility from the Ministry of Justice ended up being issued visas by the Immigration Bureau’s Okinawa branch to study at Japanese-language schools in the prefecture. This acceptance rate marks a dramatic drop from 2011’s figure of 93 percent and comes as a shock to schools in the prefecture, where 80 percent of foreign language students come from Nepal.
A spokesperson for one Okinawa-based school says that they haven’t seen a decline in Nepalese applicants this year but have noticed a rise in email inquiries from Sri Lanka. Three other Japanese-language schools and the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education failed to reply to emailed requests for comment.
Schools teaching Japanese had recently been enjoying a boom in student numbers after struggling to survive a crash in applicants following 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster. In fiscal 2015 a total of 265,254 foreign students came to Japan, an increase of 27.1 percent from 2014. Of those, 83,116 enrolled in Japanese-language schools, a 45.3 percent increase from the previous year. The government has set a goal of attracting 300,000 foreign students in the hope they’ll make Japan more internationally competitive.
However, some schools abuse the system for profit, and certain companies exploit the students for cheap labor. Student visas risk becoming an unofficial unskilled-labor working visa.
The “students” end up losing out the most. The unaware and desperate get deceived into paying overseas agents to come to Japan with dreams of making money to send home. The same agents also sometimes receive kickbacks from unscrupulous language schools. The Japan Student Services Organization’s 2017-18 Student Guide to Japan warns about overseas agents making misleading claims such as promising part-time jobs paying ¥3,000 per hour when the average is actually ¥900.
Authorities have begun cracking down on schools operating as de facto labor exchanges. In January, Fukuoka police arrested the executive of a Japanese school who arranged for Vietnamese students to work “part-time” up to 72 hours a week. He received a two-year prison sentence, suspended for four years, and a ¥2 million fine.
In March, police in Miyazaki arrested a language school owner and three employees for forcing students to work for free in a nursing home that he owned.
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