The cost of convenience in Japan: when foreign students work instead of study

It’s midnight at the convenience store I often patronize near my home in Tokyo’s central Shinjuku district. The store’s open all day and night, 365 days a year.

There is one man I’ve seen quite a bit of lately — behind the counter, stocking shelves, carrying heavy boxes, cleaning, cooking food, ringing up purchases, barristering, giving out raffle tickets, and always using polite, respectful Japanese, from irasshaimase (welcome) to arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much).

Once, he ran down the street after my husband, who had just left the store. It wasn’t because this customer had shoplifted. God forbid. No, his addled brain had simply forgotten to collect the change (about ¥40), and this superclerk thought it right to leave his post and bolt down the street to hand it to him.

Twenty-six-year-old Sajith Sampath came to Japan two years ago from Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, a smallish town 90-odd kilometers from the commercial capital, Colombo, with a clock tower and an enormous Buddha statue. The name of the town means “elephant rock,” after a formation there that is supposed to resemble the lumbering mammal.

Sampath left his home country with the dream of learning to become a mechanical engineer in Japan. “After I learn engineering, I plan to return to Sri Lanka, find a job and support my mother,” he told me. He stands tall, with broad shoulders, and speaks English and Japanese softly and carefully.

Two years into his time in Japan, however, and Sampath hasn’t yet reached the stage where he can begin studying engineering. First he must learn Japanese, including reading and writing, at a language school — all the while working long, grueling hours at a convenience store, including graveyard shifts.

When I went to the register to ask for Sampath, he was in the back. As I waited for him, I spoke with the man holding the fort. His tag noted he was a “trainee,” a term widely abused in Japan as a way to shirk, shrink, squeeze, weasel, scam and outright violate the many legal protections that workers have but don’t always enjoy in Japan.

It turned out the trainee is also from Sri Lanka, also speaks Sinhalese, also hails from Elephant Rock and, in fact, was classmates with Sampath. This man came to Japan after Sampath, but he speaks loudly, clearly and exudes confidence.

Asanga Saradha Thathsara Thilakarathna, also 26, dreams of being an IT engineer and says he wants to get into the University of Tokyo. He too, however, must attend Japanese language school until his proficiency is up to the task.

In the meantime, here he is working the night shift and spending more hours of his day at menial work than school — up to 28 hours when school is in session. When school is out, who knows how much his managers make him and Sampath work?

A source in the industry says that when Japanese-language schools are on vacation, these foreign convenience store workers — I mean foreign students — can work up to 40 or more hours per week. When are they supposed to study? During their “collapse time”?

Night shifts at convenience stores are becoming increasing busy as younger Japanese tend to do less dating, less big spending and cooking, and more irregular work hours. My point is that the stores are busy all night. Add to that the extra nighttime responsibilities of cleaning, taking in new inventory and taking out the garbage.

Students filling in the gaps

In 2016, the number of foreign workers blasted through the 1 million mark, leaping from 910,000 the previous year to 1.08 million, according to a study by the labor ministry.

Among all categories of foreign worker, “students” scored a particularly large rise, from 168,000 in 2015 to 210,000 in 2016. Students make up 1 in 5 of all foreign workers. This trend is in line with the education ministry’s plan to double the foreign student body to 300,000 by 2020. (At this point, reminding you what’s happening in Japan — or rather, Tokyo — that year is just a waste of ink.)

But wait a darned minute! Something is wrong with this picture. Aren’t foreign students just that — students, not foreign workers? What in tarnation are they doing as a “category” of worker? Why indeed has work become the main activity of a majority of foreign “students”?

It looks like somebody is having trouble keeping their stories straight. If the line Japan is spinning is that we are bringing in more foreign students than ever before to encourage cultural exchange and other pretty things, but the reality is that the country is desperate for cheap labor, then maybe the government shouldn’t be so candid as to place foreign students in the foreign worker statistics.

The truth of the matter is that foreign workers are holding things together for us in Japan — filling vacancies in convenience stores, family restaurants, package delivery and other crucial services.

Japan’s famous “customer is No. 1” philosophy has in recent years led to more 24-hour restaurants, time-designated deliveries and other special services. But online direct sales have driven labor demand through the roof and supply simply cannot keep up.

That’s where foreign nationals have come in, although often under false pretenses.

Still, labor shortages persist. One company, Yamato Transport, is raising its prices to alleviate shortages. Some family restaurants and fast-food joints are considering pulling the plug on 24-hour service.

Of course, there is nothing quite like using foreign workers to fill labor shortages. The low wages you can pay them is often still higher than they would get back home.

The background to all this is that the Immigration Bureau does not grant work visas. They don’t exist. Specialist and other visas permit work but no “work visa” exists.

Student visas permit their holders to work up to 28 hours per week (Immigration Act enforcement regulations, Article 19.5). So what employers have figured out is that if they lead these students (i.e., easy-to-exploit, cheap workers) around to enter the workforce by a back door, then they can hire them on what is effectively a work visa.

It’s the sacrifice of these foreign students’ study hours that today makes our modern lives so convenient. I treat my convenience store like a second (and much larger) refrigerator. And in the middle of the night, I don’t mind at all sending my husband to go get something from our extra fridge.

But seriously, my point is that convenience stores are indeed convenient. Nowadays, that’s thanks to overworked, study- and sleep-deprived foreign workers.

In the past, the vast majority of foreign residents were Chinese and Korean. Now many of the new arrivals are from Nepal, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.

It’s far too common that these students are compelled to prioritize work and have precious little time or energy for acquiring the skills they came here for.

Japanese language schools are sprouting all over the country. These schools have want ads on their bulletin boards about jobs in restaurants, supermarkets, at cleaning firms and similar offers.

Although they are foreign students, the regulation that they cannot work more than 28 hours tends to be a rule followed more in the breach, meaning their actual studies can become something of a pipe dream.

No one wants to face up to the reality of the service industry — that it is so short of labor it must turn to students, depriving the students of their study in the process.

A cynic might say the government doesn’t care about Sampath’s future. A cynic would be right. The government set up the 300,000 goal for foreign students and now boasts that the target has almost been met. You might want to look in that box before you celebrate its contents.

These young students are being driven to squander their precious labor and time on boosting the bottom line of distant absent shareholders rather than on their own personal goals. Will Sampath and Thilakarathna ever gain the skills and knowledge needed to fulfill their dreams? Or is it up to us to make sure the system makes that possible?

Well … I have a long day ahead of me. This is Hifumi, clocking out.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches at Sagami Women’s University and serves as executive president of Tozen Union. She can be reached at Labor Pains appears in print on the fourth Monday of the month. Originally published in The Japan Times.