Students heading out to work all night but most of their wages will go to pay the language school fee

‘In the school’s eyes students were simply money makers. They were cogs in the wheel’: Japanese Language School ex-employee

A NHK Japan investigation uncovers how the ‘Learn and Earn’ program suffers from fundamental flaws that leads to exploitation of foreign students by Japanese language schools

The LEP program was originally and mainly meant for Chinese and Korean students who use similar Kanji scripts used by the Japanese

A NHK Japan investigation has thrown more light on the troubled ‘Learn and Earn Program’ (LEP) of Japan, showing how foreign students are exploited as a source of labour and money for unscrupulous language schools in Japan.

Japan’s national public broadcaster in a recent program called ‘Tired and Disillusioned: Foreign Students in Japan,’ first plays out an audio recording of the former President of Tokyo University of Social Welfare (TUSW), Tsunio Nakajima, looking at foreign students as a source of easy money.

He says, “I am planning to enroll about 2,000 (foreign students). This could bring in USD 110 mn in four years according to my estimate. Just saving utilities and other minor costs won’t get us anywhere. This way we can make this much money. No other University has done this. It’s a great idea, don’t you think? We will really be raking it in.”

However, the quality of the research program was so bad that over a three-year period around 1,600 foreign students had dropped their courses from this University. In one case, classrooms were being held in a public bathhouse building.

From heaven to hell

The NHK show says that the Japanese government had come up with a plan of getting in 300,000 foreign students with a plan of getting highly skilled professionals but the reality has turned out to be very different.

The students were supposed to start at a Japanese language school for two years and then take a language proficiency test to see if they are eligible for Universities and Vocational schools.

A former language school employee showed the NHK some internal files which showed how they targeted foreign students as a source of labour.

The former Japanese language school employee said, “It is a school in name only. It fails to function as an educational institution.’

The visuals showed a majority of students sleeping in a language school class and it said that many students are too tired to study as they also work part time jobs.

A student from the Philippines studying in such a language school said, “Before I thought Japan is heaven but after I got here everything turned into hell.”

In the NHK program, Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki who accepts such cases of foreign students said that the issue is not only restricted to the University.

Incidentally, the same lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki also took up the case of Bhutanese students at their request and he is in the process of suing Bhutan Employment Overseas’ Japanese partner SND on behalf of Bhutanese students and parents.

Ibusuki said the Japanese government did not carry out checks on these problematic Universities and Language Schools and left them to handle the problem themselves. “I believe similar things are happening at other institutions.”

He said foreign students are not allowed to work more than 28 hours per week but in reality that is not enough to cover living expenses and tuition.

“They have to work much longer than that and as a result many of them end up too tired to study,” said the lawyer.

“Also, the schools have not prepared adequate educational programs. I don’t think this is just the TUSW we are talking about,” added the lawyer.

The NHK program pointed out that in 2012, 2016 and 2018 there were instances of foreign students dropping out or expelled from other institutes.

LEP originally for Chinese and South Korean students with similar script

Associate Professor Yuriko Sato of the Tokyo Institute of Technology said that the scheme for foreign students was laid out in 2008, and at the time it was in line with Japan’s plan to accept highly skilled foreign workers and the aim was to accept bright students.

“It was expected that 70 to 80 percent of these students would come from China and South Korea, which are countries that use Kanji characters, but after the massive earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 – people from neighboring countries either went home or decided not to come and so Japanese Language schools faced a crisis,” she said.

Kanji characters are Chinese origin characters or script modified and adopted by both Japan and Korea.

The professor said, as a result, the Japanese language schools started recruiting students from non-Kanji countries like Vietnam and Nepal.

She said the selling point was that students with limited resources can study in Japan by working part-time to pay for tuition and living expenses.

“Young people from Vietnam, Nepal and other non-Kanji countries started flocking to Japan harboring dreams of higher education but since they came from non-Kanji countries they needed much more time to learn the language, but since they worked part time they were too tired during the day to focus on their studies,” said the professor.

She said that students are only allowed to enroll in Japanese language schools for two years and they then take a proficiency test but many fail to pass the N2 level required to take University classes in Japanese.

Debt-ridden students as money makers for schools

The NHK presenter said that problems with regard to foreign students are coming to the fore throughout the country and the reason for this is that Japan has to rely on them as a source of labour.

In Fukoka in Western Japan the number of language schools have nearly doubled in the past ten years. The program showed students entering buses late in the afternoon chartered by companies where the students work.

A student said, “I work from eight pm to five am.” She admitted that she has school in the morning but she is busy and so it is tough.

The buses head to warehouses and bento box factories that operate around the clock.

The program explained why all these students work all night even if they have class in the morning.

It said that many of them are already in debt when they arrive in Japan with the average debt being USD 9,300 per student (Nu 651,000 taking one dollar at Nu 70) because of the thousands of dollars they have to pay when enrolling in Japanese Language schools.

The program explained that once they are in the country they need thousands of dollars more to cover the following year’s tuition.

The former language school employee, in the program, said that the language school instead served as a job broker. He said he was under strict orders from the school management to collect tuition no matter what.

The former employee showed a list the school used to keep track of student income. The list included workplaces, hours and paydays.

The school connected them with factories and restaurants so that they would not fall behind on tuition payments.

He said finding students jobs was given a higher priority than teaching them Japanese.

“In the school’s eyes the students were simply money makers. They were cogs in the wheel,” said the former employee.

The program said that while Japanese law puts the cap at 28 hours per week for work it is not fully enforced.

The former employee said that while schools are supposed to instruct the students to follow the law, employees turned a blind eye.

Chan, 20 who arrived from Vietnam last year to study Japanese has two part-time jobs at a food packaging plant and a food convenience store. She sometimes works more than the 28-hour limit but even then after paying tuition she is left with little money to spare.

She showed that she just had USD 9 to last her for about a week.

Chan hoped to go to college and find a regular job but she is too busy with her part-time job. She admitted that she has hardly made any progress with her Japanese.

“I want to be an interpreter but I am not confident: I am worried about my future,” she said.


The NHK presenter said that calling international students ‘money makers’ and ‘cogs’ makes him angry and ashamed.

The lawyer said that international students should not be preyed upon as a source of labour. He said that if students are too busy working to study then the system is failing.

The program said that in June 2019, a student from the Philippines sued a Japanese language school. She said that she told the school that she wanted to quit her job as she was forced to work over the 28-hour weekly limit.

She says that the school told her to go back to her country.

The lawyer said that there needs to be a support system for foreign students. He said the students need access to outside services and particularly consultation (legal).

He said the Philippines student case made it to court because she went to a non-profit organization for help but that this is rare and most students just put up with their situations.

Professor Sato came up with three recommendations to help foreign students. Her first was to check the quality of education. She said that the quality needs to be checked at around 70 percent of Japanese Language schools that are not recognized.

“We need to prevent these unregulated schools from preying on students to make money,” the professor said.

Her second recommendation was similar to the lawyer in terms of making third-party consultation services available.

Her third recommendation was to improve support systems for schools and students.

She said it is necessary to help educational institutes which are not recognized as school corporations to raise the quality of their education.

She said that these institutions are not eligible for government support like subsidies and tax incentives. “There are few scholarships and tuition waiver programs available to Japanese language school students and they also struggle to get by due to their poor Japanese skills so they need support. Corporate groups and municipalities that want to hire foreign students in the future need to offer scholarships.”

The program reporter said that during his recent visit to Vietnam there is a bad image of Japan spreading through social media but he still felt that many people in Vietnam want to study in Japan.

The professor said that international students are very important as they serve as a bridge between their home country and Japan. She said it is important to take care of them and make them like Japan and help them sharpen their skills before they go back home.

The program as a solution gave the example of Higashikawa Town in Hokkaido which is short of caregivers and so it gave a USD 52,000 scholarship or grants for two years to 26 foreign students to study in a local vocational school. 80 percent of the funds is covered by the national government while 20 percent is from local municipal funds.

The Higashikawa Mayor, Ichiro Matsuoka said that everyone needs care at the end of their lives.

The town has to rely on foreign students to make up its workforce.

A student under this different program Nguyen Van Nam, 21 from Vietnam said he decided to study at the school as the program covered both tuition and living expenses. The only condition is to work at a regional care facility for at least five years after certification.

He said he studies 10 to 11 hours a day as without the scholarship he would have to work part-time. “Thanks to the program I am able to enjoy myself,” said Nguyen.

The Bhutan link

The findings of the NHK Japan investigative program on the LEP program matches what Bhutanese students and parents have been saying for a while.

Bhutanese students too had taken loans of around Nu 700,000 each from Financial Institutions in Bhutan for the LEP program promoted by Bhutan Employment Overseas.

Bhutanese students found the 28-hour per week work time to be inadequate and so they on the advice of the agent worked extra hours to help pay the loan and also meet future tuition fees.

However, this meant that they could not learn adequate Japanese and so the vast majority of Bhutanese students failed the language proficiency  N2 tests which ruled them out for further studies in Japan.

The students in effect were working to pay the high fees of the language schools.

The Bhutanese Parents’ Committee in its own investigation in Japan said that the agent SND even took a commission from the wages of the Bhutanese students.

Like the Vietnamese and Filipino student, Bhutanese students were not learning much, were overworked and could barely meet ends meet.

As established by the NHK investigation the entire program was flawed right from the start and most Bhutanese students never had a chance.

The beneficiaries’, however, were the agents who sent these students and charged commissions and the language schools that used them as cheap labour to pay their fees and other charges.

In certain instances, the language schools became like forced labour camps as they took away the passport of Bhutanese students who could not meet tuition fees. The implication being that they could not leave till they made a profit for the language school.

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