A few hours after sundown last week, Thi Tu Luong was dragging her suitcase down a side street in Tokyo’s business district, looking for the temple that would take her in for the night.
Luong, a 22-year-old Vietnamese worker, had just been fired from her job at a hotel in a hot springs town north of Tokyo.
After a few minutes of walking along the street, she saw Jiho Yoshimizu, who runs a support group for Vietnamese workers, waving to her from the entrance of a concrete building.
The three-story Buddhist temple, Nisshinkutsu, has become a haven for young Vietnamese migrant workers, one of the groups hardest-hit by the economic slump that followed the novel coronavirus outbreak in Japan.
“I felt abandoned,” said Luong, shortly after she arrived at the temple. “I’m just really grateful I can be here.”
Lured by higher wages but often burdened by debt to recruiters, Vietnamese are the fastest-growing group of foreign nationals in Japan. They numbered 410,000 in 2019, up 24.5 percent from the previous year.
In ordinary times, nuns at the temple would offer prayers for the deceased, but with the coronavirus upending the economy, they now spend their time making care packages for Vietnamese scattered across the country.
Inside the temple, young Vietnamese workers whose lives are in limbo study Japanese, cook Vietnamese food, look for work or book flights home.
“We do everything. We take care of people from when they’re inside the womb to when they’re inside an urn,” said Yoshimizu, who heads the Japan-Vietnam Coexistence Support Group, a nonprofit based out of the temple.
The temple became known in Vietnamese circles after it took in workers from the country who were left homeless after the 2011 earthquake in the Tohoku region.
As Yoshimizu’s reputation spread in the community, she started receiving messages from young Vietnamese — including women seeking abortions, workers who were abruptly dismissed with nowhere to go and laborers fleeing abusive employers.
In 2019, Yoshimizu handled about 400 cases, but since April that number has spiked. She now receives between 10 and 20 messages a day, all pleas for help from Vietnamese nationals across Japan.
“I’ve lost count,” she said, sitting next to a phone that beeps and rings ceaselessly with calls and messages from labor brokers, employers and desperate Vietnamese workers.
“No one else in Japan right now can provide this kind of support,” she said.
When Luong was fired without warning and told to leave her dormitory, she turned to Yoshimizu for help.
“I have no job, no place to stay right now. Please, please help me,” Luong messaged Yoshimizu. “Can I come to the temple today?”
Luong graduated from a vocational school in March and started a job in mid-April at a high-end hotel in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, a tourist destination known for its temples.
But she wasn’t given any work and spent her days in a dorm room with nothing to do. Luong said she was paid about ¥30,000 ($279.04) in May and was not sure if she had been paid in June. A representative of the hotel where she worked said they were not in a position to comment because they did not employ Luong directly.
Many Vietnamese workers arrive in Japan as students or trainees, making them dependent on their employers and therefore vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Yoshimizu spoke in the Diet last month to urge the government to do more to support Vietnamese students who do not have employment insurance.
“The current government’s coronavirus policy is focused on helping the Japanese first,” Yoshimizu said.
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