Students at the Japanese-language school Tokyo Nichigo Gakuin are encouraged to speak their minds, and to do so as fluently as possible.

The 15 foreign students — all but one of whom come from China — in one of the classes at this school in the city of Saitama are cramming hard for a standardized college entrance exam for foreigners held in June.

Teacher Tomoko Takemoto lectures in rapid-fire Japanese on a range of social and political reforms Japan experienced after World War II, including women’s suffrage and the concept that sovereignty rests with the people.

She turns to a student and asks what kind of social changes his own country has seen.

“Before, we were allowed to eat only after reciting the words of Mao Zedong,” he says in fluent Japanese. Now, he adds, this ritual is no longer the case.

Through hard work, the students — who came to Japan between last spring and fall — have made great progress.

But these days, schools that teach foreigners Japanese language and culture have come under heavy scrutiny. Whereas the government once sought to increase the number of foreign students in Japan, now not all can fit the bill.

The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau has made it more difficult for Chinese to obtain student visas amid a growing perception that certain people are coming to Japan as students only to get involved in illegal employment or even criminal activity.

This image was reinforced by the scandal that undid Sakata Junior College in Yamagata Prefecture, where many of the Chinese students were found to have slipped away to find illegal work in Tokyo in 2002, and the 2003 murder of a Fukuoka family of four, for which Chinese former students in Japan are being held.

Foreign students come to Japan via “ryugaku” college student visas and “shugaku” precollege student visas.

For the academic year that started last month, the bureau received 23,285 applications from foreigners seeking to study Japanese and other subjects, but it granted visas to only 10,657. Chinese accounted for 70 percent of the applications — and only 27 percent of the visas.

On April 1, the bureau stripped five Japanese-language schools — four in Tokyo and one in Yokohama — of the right to apply for student visas on foreigners’ behalf on grounds that the institutions were effectively run by, or had ties with, a man standing trial for visa and other acts of fraud.

On April 28, the Saitama District Court sentenced Katsunori Yoshida to two years in prison for forging documents to help four Chinese renew their skilled worker visas. The court also ruled that Yoshida, a naturalized Japanese citizen from Taiwan, amassed at least 1.5 million yen in fees for his acts, which included falsifying tax documents.

Although the charges were not directly linked to Japanese-language schools, law enforcement officers reportedly said they also suspect Yoshida used at least four of the schools as covers to help Chinese enter Japan to work.

Language-school officials say his case damaged the industry’s reputation.

Many are making “extraordinary efforts” to recruit the best and brightest by going to China, testing each applicant for academic knowledge and interviewing both applicants and their sponsors, according to Masamitsu Araki, Tokyo Nichigo Gakuin’s chief director and principal.

Araki said most schools are also on the lookout for the earliest signs of possible trouble from students.

“Our teachers telephone students if they take a day off,” he said. “If students are absent for two days in a row, they visit their homes. If they don’t come to school on the third day, we call their parents in their home country.”

Araki, along with other Japanese-language school operators, launched an industry organization last month to fight growing public perceptions that such schools are havens for criminals and to lobby for more support for foreign students of Japanese.

So far, 108 out of 408 publicly accredited Japanese-language schools have become members of Zenkoku Nihongogakko Rengokai (the All-Japan Association of Japanese Language Schools).

The schools formed the group partly due to their shared sense of financial crisis. Some schools had all their student visa applications rejected for April enrollment and are on the verge of bankruptcy. The association hopes that by lobbying Diet lawmakers, it might be able to ease the Immigration Bureau’s restrictive visa stance.

Sendai Language School President Harumi Izuoka, an active member of the group, accuses the bureau of altering its policy to meet the political, or diplomatic, atmosphere, whichever is handiest.

The visa approval rate for Izuoka’s school had hovered at around 30 percent during the early months of 1998. He submitted a request to regional immigration authorities to ease their stance, contacted the local media and lashed out at what he said was an opaque immigration policy.

Then, in the months prior to the 1998 visit by then Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Sendai, the bureau said it would approve some of his reapplications — a move that he suspects was triggered mainly by diplomatic concerns.

“The criteria for granting or refusing visas are arbitrary and lack consistency,” Izuoka claimed.

Araki said the group also wants to address a range of structural problems in the way Japanese-language students are treated, which he said the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education (Nisshinkyo) has failed to address.

Nisshinkyo, which is affiliated with the education, justice and foreign ministries, was established in 1990 to “improve the quality of Japanese-language education institutions” and “promote the Japanese-language education of foreigners.”

It is funded by subsidies from the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry and fees paid by member schools.

But because of its affiliation with the government, Nisshinkyo has done little to help Japanese-language students, Araki complained.

Precollege, or shugaku, students — those who study at Japanese-language schools — have various disadvantages compared with ryugaku students, who mostly come to study at colleges. A government-affiliated center that helps foreign students find housing and part-time jobs has refused to offer its services to shugaku students.

Most students of Japanese-language schools are also ineligible for student discounts for rail passes.

“Problems abound in the industry, but Nisshinkyo has avoided them for nearly 15 years,” Araki said.

But not all Japanese-language school officials side with the new industry group.

The president of one school in Tokyo, who declined to be named, maintained that the schools’ excessive reliance on Chinese students is to blame for their woes.

He also pointed out that it is misleading to say all shugaku students are denied student discounts for railway passes, because those attending schools run by educational foundations can get them. In addition, the education ministry eased the rules for establishing such foundations in April so Japanese-language schools can obtain that status with little effort, he argued.

But an overwhelming majority of Japanese-language schools are run by stock companies or individuals. Yet Araki, himself the owner of a stock-company school, argued that such schools should be given equal treatment if the government is serious in its bid to deregulate the education sector.

Tetsuo Kihara, a director of Nisshinkyo and former head of the Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau, said his organization has campaigned on behalf of foreign students. But he dismissed the idea that the association should work harder to boost the status of Japanese-language schools, saying that it is not the body’s job to protect them.

“Japanese-language schools are like cram schools,” as they have no legal status as educational bodies, he said. “We do instruct them, but we have no legal authority over them.”

Journalist Mei Sasaki said the uproar over Chinese visa applicants suggests the government has no long-term vision with regard to accepting foreign students.

In 1988, Sasaki, then a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, covered the massive rejections of visa applications from China and the subsequent demonstrations by Chinese in front of the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai.

Sasaki, who acknowledged that precollege student visas have been — and can be — abused by people who seek to work here instead of study, said the root of the problem lies in the government’s lack of vision.

“In the sense that Japanese-language students do not have language skills when they first come here, they are the most vulnerable and need help,” Sasaki said. “Yet the government has refused to recognize their needs.

“Japanese-language students are in (legal) limbo, and unless Japan deals with them seriously, it will end up fostering anti-Japanese feelings among them.”

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