Against the “Japanese Dream”: Vietnamese student-workers in Japan

With the hope of escaping from their destiny of joining the manual labour force in Vietnam, Vietnamese youth choose to come to Japan to make a fresh start. Instead, they end up working part-time jobs and get stuck in them after graduation.

With the hope of escaping from their destiny of joining the manual labour force in Vietnam, Vietnamese youth choose to come to Japan to make a fresh start. Instead, they end up working part-time jobs and get stuck in them after graduation. Tram, a Vietnamese student in Japan, told us that “many people come to Japan to turn the page. But no, it is not like that. It is a new page of hard labour.”

The Japanese government has presented itself as attracting and fostering “global talent”, the reality turns out to be different.

In 1983, under Nakasone’s government, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched the “100,000 International Student Plan” – a package of migration and educational policies with the aim to foster understanding with developing countries and to aid them in developing human resources. After the target was met, the plan was revised to host 300,000 international students in 2008. It paved the way for more education-oriented immigration policies, such as simplifying visa procedures and allowing international students to work part-time jobs to help with their tuition and living expenses.

Despite their aims, these policies provide the Japanese economy with a considerable manual labour force, despite not being legally recognized as channels for such purposes. Indeed, instead of providing official channels for migrant labourers, the Japanese economy has taken advantage of policies like these as a “side door” to address its severe labour shortages. Japanese education fails to train international students from less developed regions properly, which makes them struggle to pursue higher education in universities or graduate schools.

At the same time, a plethora of profit-seeking actors such as studying abroad agencies, Japanese language institutes, or migration brokers emerge and flourish by bringing in international students – creating an education-migration industry across sectors of the economy. The system traps a large population of students from outside the Sinosphere in socioeconomic precarity and stalls their educational mobility, which in turn, keeps them in the cycle of low-wage labour for the Japanese economy.

In 2021, amongst more than 1.7 million foreigners working in Japan, almost 20% of them were international students participating in the labour market with their working permits. The ability to earn money while studying attracts potential students from less developed countries such as Vietnam and Nepal, especially those from lower-middle-class to middle-class families. Within this population of international students, Vietnamese constitute a great number.

Of 453,544 Vietnamese participating in the Japanese workforce, 24.2% are working students. For many Vietnamese who travel across borders to study and work in Japan, this migration option represents a real opportunity to change their life for the better. However, this “Japanese dream” is a fleeting one. For many Vietnamese who come to Japan, what awaits them is often inadequate education, long working hours to make ends meet, an uncertain future after graduation, and in many cases, physical abuse and even death.

We would like to shed light on the experiences of Vietnamese student-workers in Japan that draw on research by Phuong Anh from 2019 to 2022. She met and spoke with Vietnamese students in Japan to understand their experiences of working and studying in Japan, why they risk their student visa status by working over the permitted time, and how the dysfunctional education system for language and vocational school students is channeling them to the low-wage labour market before and after graduation.


Working as a Student in Japan


The life of a student in Japan, for many Vietnamese, is a life of precarity and risk. They are under financial precarity due to the cost of living and tuition; this, in turn, begets risks to their legal status as immigrants due to the need to work overtime and forego studying.

As a result, many have developed a work-oriented mentality from their earliest days in the country: their time in Japan is regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime gamble to juggle school and excessive work, and those who are lucky will survive and get a good job after graduation, while those who are unlucky will be caught and deported – or at worst, die in the process. This imagery reminds us of the Korean drama Squid Game, in which downtrodden people put their lives in a game of chance where the result is either a new life or death.

Vietnamese students who wish to study in Japan are usually high school graduates from rural areas. Lacking language skills and cultural capital, these students have to spend a considerable amount of money to pay the study-abroad consulting agencies.

According to a survey by the Japan-Vietnam Association regarding the situation of Vietnamese students in Japan during the pandemic, 60.95% of Vietnamese students were studying in Japan without any scholarships, while 43% of them borrowed to pay the expensive initial fee to come to Japan. Agency fees can vary from approximately 1,065,000 to 1,400,000 JPY (7,745 – 10,220 USD).

Given the Vietnamese GDP per capita of 3,694 USD, such upfront payment carries tremendous financial pressure on prospective students, who often have to choose to take out a loan to fulfil these demands. However, this is a lucrative gamble as students are often suggested by agencies or through word-of-mouth that they can make much more money by working part-time in Japan.

For example, a story shared by an interviewee indicates that one can make up to 370,000 JPY (2,701 USD) a month working part-time, which is triple the possible amount of money to be made from 28 hours of work a week. While the details were not shared, this entails working multiple part-time jobs simultaneously, including overtime and night shifts, which certainly makes the student go over the legal 28-hour per week limit.

Indeed, for many students, working overtime is necessary to keep up with the cost of living, tuition fees, and in many cases, to pay off the loan they had taken out to pay for the study-abroad agencies. For many students, working one job within the permitted time would only afford them the basic cost of living but not the tuition fees. More often than not, students cannot save enough money to pay the tuition fee and have to borrow more money. Therefore, students from poorer backgrounds are more inclined to work more hours to address these financial needs.

In one of the interviews, the student indicates that nobody wants to work so much, but they need to in order to survive the expensive cost of living and studying in Japan. He suggests that if the hourly wage of part-time jobs is raised to the point that students can pay the tuition fees, nobody would work over the permitted time.

Working overtime also means that students are permanently under the threat of deportation and falling behind on schoolwork. Paradoxically, these risks do not deter students from working but rather encourage them to work more. This is because the risk has been internalised over time as an all-in gamble.

Moreover, by working more, students could have built for themselves financial backing in case of future uncertainties. For example, a student named Tram, who was job-hunting after her studies, told me that she was working overtime because she might need money for visa-status-transferring fees and money for lawyers to guarantee the chance of getting a working visa. Another student named Chien, who has a more disadvantaged background, shared:

“At first, I just worked to pay the tuition fee. However, I gradually got used to the pace, then I worked more and more, to the point that I realised it was too late for me to go back to studying. I was left far behind by my classmates. There is no point in studying. I’ve decided to concentrate on working only. It is always better to make more money. If I go back to Vietnam, at least I will have some funds.”

At the time of the interview, Chien had already graduated from his language school for half a year, and he was waiting for the result of his working visa application – for the third time. During this wait, he was not allowed to work part-time jobs, but he was still working in a fruit factory for more than ten hours a day, six times a week. Since he was a student in language school, he had been working a lot to earn money as a backup plan in case he was deported back to Vietnam.

Knowing students’ need for money, businesses also use legal loopholes to keep them working overtime. One of the loopholes is to declare a portion of students’ wages as a fixed-monthly salary (within the 28-hour limit), while the remaining is to be declared as a bonus. Many factories or convenience stores offer to pay students in cash instead of via bank transfer, making it possible to obscure any paper trail.

Another method is for students to open several bank accounts and submit separate bank books for different workplaces. Since it is difficult to keep track of an individual’s bank accounts, students just need to submit one bank book to prove their income in one working place. While the “My Number” system (a form of ID number) can be used to track one’s working hours, many working places, such as factories, do not require the submission of a My Number card before employment.


The Dysfunctional School System


For Vietnamese students who migrate to Japan, language schools and vocational schools are often their educational pathway. As the first stop, the language schools are tasked with providing foreign students with sufficient Japanese language skills before they can apply for either universities or vocational schools.

However, research has shown that language schools, being profit-driven businesses, often fail to provide students with sufficient language education. This is one reason why many Vietnamese students end up in vocational schools after finishing language training, for they have not acquired sufficient language skills to enter universities.

The number of Vietnamese students pursuing education in vocational schools is significantly higher compared to other nationalities, with of language school graduates continuing their education in vocational schools. With the rapidly shrinking Japanese student population resulting from the declining birth rate, Japan’s privately owned vocational schools see international students as a golden opportunity to fill the vacancies.

A recent government survey found that in 2019, 871 vocational schools in Japan accepted international students. In those schools, 195 schools reported that international students made up more than 50% of their student bodies, while the proportion of non-Japanese students was 90% to 100% in 145 vocational schools. Vocational schools are actively recruiting students through partnerships with language schools and networks of international students.

The language school that Tram belonged to has an agreement with a specific vocational school in the area. As part of this agreement, the language school will offer its graduating students an “easy transition option” to the “partnered” vocational school. Despite its name, this transition is not voluntary but rather a forced transition that pushes students directly to this predetermined vocational school. In case students do not want to go with this plan, the school will refuse to introduce other options for the students.

Moreover, students will receive no support from the school if they intend to apply for other schools rather than the “partnered” vocational school. This means that they need to prepare the paperwork and do research on their own, which is a challenging process due to their limited language skills.

Vocational schools, similar to language schools, do not seem to provide students with the best quality of education. A possible explanation for this situation is that profit-oriented vocational schools tend to rely on part-time teachers instead of professionally trained lecturers with tenure.

In the interviews, informants indicated that part-time teachers feel less obliged to go beyond the minimum. This means teachers only deliver lessons based on the schools’ curriculum without giving students extra help. The loose curriculum of vocational schools also allows students to extend their double identity of student-part-time labourer, a role they got used to while studying in language schools.

In an interview, Mrs. Takahashi, a language school teacher whose students are mostly Vietnamese, revealed that schools’ ranking depends on students’ attendance records. If teachers are too strict with their expectations, students may stop going to class, which would lead to the closure of the school according to the law.

To safeguard their business, language schools often ask their teachers to pay no attention when students sleep in class or do not complete their assignments. “As long as you are present in class, that’s good enough [as a student],” Mrs. Takahashi shared. As a result, many students lose enthusiasm for studying and see the classroom merely as a resting place between their part-time jobs.

While many graduates from vocational schools can find full-time jobs after a long time working as part-timers, they maintain their roles in low-wage sectors such as manufacturing or catering. Many informants share their future plans to work in lower-paid jobs.

Trang, a 22-year-old vocational school student, said that working in a factory or supermarket after graduation is a designated career for Vietnamese vocational school graduates:

“I think most Vietnamese people in Japan will do manual jobs. Senmon gakko (vocational school) is only two years. It is too short for any skill training. I have never seen anyone [who graduated from vocational school] get job offers to work in offices.”


Knowing Your Place


Frantz Fannon once wrote: “In the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” This passage describes the way through which ideas of ethnic and cultural hierarchy are connected to the economic division between the colonised and the colonists. The implication of Fannon’s observation goes beyond the bygone days of colonialism to describe the current international political economic order between the Global North and the Global South.

The experience of the Vietnamese workers demonstrates that Japan’s educational policies toward foreign students are successful, but not in the way that they were intended to be. Rather, they have succeeded in providing the country a stable source of cheap manual labour and profits for the education-migration industry. In the end, it is the poor migrants from developing countries that are exploited through this process. Those who wish for an education that would change their life end up in institutions that fail to educate them for the Japanese workplaces.

Meanwhile, those with a legitimate desire to migrate for work have no choice but to become illegal labourers through student visas. Lacking the necessary cultural capital and adequate education, especially Japanese language skills, these students acknowledge that they need to embrace their place within the Japanese economic order: that of the manual labourers working in harsh and precarious conditions.

These individuals form an underclass of labourers within Japanese society who sell their labour cheap without benefits nor protection from the laws. As stories of abuses and social friction continue to make headlines, the Japanese economy will have to address the contradictions brought about by this education-migration industry.

Photo Credit: Retail News Asia


Le Phuong Anh is a PhD student in International Studies at Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University, and a research assistant at the Waseda Institute of Asian Migrations. Her research examines the mobility of Vietnamese students and specified skilled workers in Japan along with their social and economic practices.

Torao M is a Contributing Writer at Asian Labour Review. He is pursuing a postgraduate degree, and working on digital culture and political economy.