SAKATA, Yamagata Pref. — Jin Xianhua, a 26-year-old Chinese student, tossed and turned as if in a bad dream as she took the night express bus to the snow-clad Shonai Plains in the north.
She was going back to her school, Sakata Junior College in Yamagata Prefecture, which seems to be going through a bad dream of its own — allegations of mass truancy, strike threats by staff and inspections by the education ministry.
And as Jin arrived in late January, she heard the two-year college, which caters mainly to students from China hoping to study management, was on the brink of bankruptcy with 300 million yen in debts. Meanwhile, her classmates are dropping out and working underground in Tokyo.
Jin, an ethnic Korean, was born in a remote village in China’s Heilongjiang Province near the Russian border. She left her home at 18 after graduating from high school.
She has dreams of getting a degree from a Japanese university, setting up a business and being its president. So she came to Japan in September 1999 to study at Sakata after working at firms affiliated with foreign interests in Beijing, Shenzhen, Qingdao and Shanghai.
In China, some 60 million people have left their homes in search of better lives amid rapidly progressing market-opening reforms.
Chinese villagers have a saying, “Riben biandi huangjin” — “There are gold mines everywhere in Japan,” but Sakata Junior College had a role in luring Jin here. It began recruiting Chinese students in spring 2000 in an apparent bid to fix its poor finances as the number of children continue to decline in Japan.
Many Chinese rushed to enroll because the school allows them to work in Japan without violating visa regulations. In October 2000, the first charter flight, carrying more than 100 Chinese students, arrived at Shonai airport from Heilongjiang’s capital Harbin.
It was an eager Jin who arrived in Sakata alone a week earlier. She was disappointed with the city. There were no high rises or streets full of neon like Tokyo or Beijing.
“People are gentle and kind,” she said. “But there are no exciting events and no jobs.”
She left her home for the same reasons six years ago.
In her first academic year, she stayed in Sakata and didn’t miss a day of classes despite working late hours in a restaurant owned by a Korean. A daughter of the owner would encourage her, saying, “You’re an honor student. You’ll stick it out even if the others drop out.”
Entering her second year, the number of students going to class plunged to about 100 from a peak of 300. Many of them had gone to Tokyo to find jobs without notifying the school.
A third of the students who enrolled ran away several months after their arrival in Japan. Another third moved to Tokyo, where they work to repay loans for their studies. Some have found jobs in Sakata and its vicinity.
Jin had no student loans because her mother, a former teacher, gave her the equivalent of 1.8 million yen in retirement money. But every month she has to send 50,000 yen to China to support her aging parents.
In a bid to keep its students on its roster, the college opened a classroom in central Tokyo in October. After confirming formal courses were available there, Jin traveled to the capital with about a dozen colleagues.
The college, however, was forced to close the classroom in December as the education ministry and immigration authorities took a tougher stance toward the school. The media had criticized it over curriculum improprieties and bad management.
Before they disappeared, two of Jin’s classmates told her they planned to become illegal aliens, hoping to earn big money and go back to China by doing anything possible until the police catch them.
Another two were arrested while working in a sex parlor in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district. They were later deported.
Jin, who refuses to give up hope despite sleepless nights filled with worrying, has been looking for a new school while shuttling between Tokyo and Sakata.
She doesn’t want to follow her former classmates, but her student visa expires in October. The likelihood of her becoming an illegal alien is growing.
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