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EL Asia Pacific: Japan sees rise in visa factories

Japan Chris Gladis

Melanie Butler writes

Japan’s need for more Japanese-speaking migrant workers has led to the emergence of ‘visa factory’ schools, with one school official recently arrested in south-western Nogota. Students enrolled in Japanese language schools have the right to work 28 hours a week. The situation has led to unscrupulous agents and a fight between immigration officials and educational bureaucrats for control of accreditation. In short, Japan is beginning to see the emergence of the great ‘bogus schools, bogus students’ debate which has long hit the headlines in English-speaking countries.

Japan has long restricted the use of migrant labour. However, faced with an ageing population and a declining birthrate the government has begun to ease restrictions through measures such as changing visa requirements for ‘highly skilled foreign professionals’ in 2015. Extending student work rights, previously restricted to foreigners enrolled at Japanese universities, to those studying in the country’s language schools is seen as a measure designed to make it easier for would-be migrants to pass the country’s stringent language requirements. This has led to an increase in the number of students arriving from poorer Asian countries such as Vietnam, which now makes up the largest number of new migrants into the country, Nepal and Myanmar. Many need to work to pay their living expenses but, according to students interviewed in the Japan Times, the permitted 28 hours a week is simply not enough to make ends meet. Often students, whose families have spent their life savings to send them to school in Japan, have turned to working longer hours. A Nepalese student told the Japan Times, ‘Many students fall asleep during class because they work too hard.’

The number of language schools rose 20 per cent in the three years to 2015, and control of the sector was transferred from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Justice, responsible for immigration. However, the accreditation scheme, run by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education, was dissolved, leading to a decline in standards, educationalists say. ‘Increasing the quality of Japanese language schools is practically a national policy,’ an education ministry official told the Japan Times, ‘but bureaucracy is getting in the way.’

The Ministry of Justice is concentrating on illegal migration, not educational standards. Raids on language schools are increasingly common, including those where Western students are used as ‘volunteer English teachers’, but language school owners are rarely charged, with police preferring to concentrate on deporting students. In the recent case in Nogata, reported on page 3 of this issue, a senior member of staff was arrested, a sign that the authorities are increasingly aware of the role of corrupt school owners in work-rights scandals.

According to the Japanese press, the school in the Nogota case is accused of encouraging students to take two jobs, finding them work and advising them to set up separate bank accounts to avoid problems with the immigration authorities. Following such incidents, the Ministry of Justice plans to introduce national standards, with the pledge that schools failing to meet them will have their licences revoked. Meanwhile in Vietnam complaints have begun to surface about language travel agents overcharging students for placing them in private language schools in Japan. Although commissions from the schools remain at 10 per cent – low by comparison with language schools in English-speaking markets – students are routinely overcharged for the costs of fees and accommodation. One investigation by Vietnamnet revealed that two students had been overcharged 90 million dong (£3,000) or 42 per cent of the cost price of a six-month trip.  In August Vietnam abolished its licensing system for educational agents, citing the need to reduce bureaucracy and increase consumer choice.

Pic courtesy: Chris Gladis