The controversy over the increase in crimes committed by foreigners in Japan is centered mainly on appearances and interpretation. The National Police Agency’s use of statistics to show that “foreign crime” is on the rise has given the agency license to initiate policies that many people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, find discriminatory and inflammatory.

Then, in a desperate and misguided effort to appear to be doing something about undocumented immigrants, the Foreign Ministry launched a Web site where citizens can rat on foreigners who they think might be here illegally. The Web site encourages people who already mistrust foreigners to exercise that mistrust to their heart’s content.

But the fact is, the biggest negative impact on the average Japanese person’s image of foreigners is the reporting of crimes committed by foreigners. If it’s true that the authorities are using such reports to serve their own xenophobic ends, then it’s important for the media to place these crimes in a proper context.

The most sensational example is the murder of a family of four in Fukuoka last year. Initially, the media speculated about whether or not organized crime was involved or if the murders were a vendetta or even drug-related.

The answer was more banal, and much more perplexing. Three Chinese students eventually confessed. They had simply wanted money and thought the family was rich because they owned a Mercedes. All they got was 37,000 yen.

The media’s reaction was to highlight the fact that crimes committed by Chinese students have been increasing. By itself, this observation is potentially inflammatory, but the Asahi Shimbun, in an ongoing series titled “A Foreigner’s Crime,” has attempted to provide the necessary context for a problem that many people, including the police and the government, have oversimplified.

The series focuses on a 22-year-old man named Sun Gai, who is currently serving time in Nagoya Prison for murdering a woman in December 2002. Sun, along with four other Chinese men, kidnapped the woman for ransom and, when the money didn’t come through, strangled her and dumped her body in Nagoya Harbor.

Sun was born in 1981 and raised in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. Like many people who lived on China’s east coast, he grew up on Japanese culture, admiring Japan’s economic clout, and after graduating from junior high school studied at a Japanese-language school that was affiliated with an educational institution in Japan.

His aim was to study in Japan. The school told him they would help him get into college, and after graduation he could easily get a job with a Japanese company, either in Japan or back in China. He took the entrance test for a junior college in Gifu Prefecture and passed, but so did everyone who took the test.

His parents had to borrow a lot of money for tuition and to secure a student visa. The school told him he could work up to 28 hours a week in Japan and that it was easy to get jobs, but when he arrived in Japan in 2001, the unemployment rate had hit 5 percent.

Japan turned out to be much more expensive than Sun had anticipated. The money he had been led to believe would last two years was gone in less than a year. He found work, but the jobs rarely lasted more than a month and paid very little. Sun was kicked out of school after a year for nonpayment of tuition and ended up on the streets of Nagoya. He was ashamed to tell his parents because they had given up so much to send him to Japan.

There were other Chinese students in the same predicament, and he gravitated to a group who were living hand-to-mouth. Eventually, one member of this group met a Taiwanese gangster who taught them how to rob houses, but they were not suited for a life of crime. Just like the Fukuoka trio, this “gang” was pathetically inept. In addition to the failed kidnapping, they also attempted two burglaries that netted nothing. All were eventually arrested and are now in Japanese prisons.

Depending on how you read the statistics, between 40 and 45 percent of the solved felonies committed by “visiting foreigners” in 2002 were committed by Chinese nationals, and the number of Chinese students arrested for crimes other than visa- or drug-related offenses has tripled in the past five years.

In the ’90s, the Foreign Ministry relaxed student-visa requirements in an effort to realize their pledge to “internationalize.” It’s also believed that the changes were made to help regional colleges cope with dwindling enrollments.

The government left the screening process to the schools themselves, thus allowing them to tell students anything they wanted in order to entice them. (In December, qualifications for students visas were made stricter.)

Foreign students in Japan became a cottage industry. Many with student visas had no intention of studying, they simply wanted to work and schools looked the other way as long as they received their fees. But even the students who wanted to study had to work almost full-time just to survive. Money became an unavoidable obsession.

In a letter he wrote from prison, Sun says that to a Chinese person mentsu (“face,” personal honor) can be “more important than life itself.” Having staked his entire future on his Japan experience and placed his parents in debt, he turned to crime as a last-ditch solution. The majority of Chinese students do not become criminals no matter how desperate their situation is, but a lot of them feel desperate nonetheless.