Photo/Illutration Students from abroad take a class at Tomifuji Foreign Language Academy in Kobe’s Chuo Ward in October. (Takuya Asakura)

The wave of foreign students coming to Japan has resumed since COVID-19 border restrictions were lifted earlier this year.

And they are arriving from a wider range of countries.

A record high of more than 2.96 million non-Japanese students, workers and others were staying in Japan as of the end of June this year.

The key for the students’ success here is improving their Japanese language skills.

The country has moved to cater to their needs, such as introducing the Japanese education promotion law three years ago.

A survey by the Cultural Affairs Agency shows that 280,000 people were studying the language at educational institutes in Japan in fiscal 2019, a 4.6-times rise from fiscal 1990.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic put a serious dent in that number.


Tomifuji Foreign Language Academy in central Kobe, which opened in 1988 as Clark Foreign Language School, saw its student numbers drop to just 10 at the end of March this year.

But after Japan eased the entry restrictions, the student number at the Japanese school climbed to 210 by October. Full enrollment of 280 is expected next spring.

A Sri Lankan student at the academy, said she was intrigued by the snowy landscapes in Japan when she watched the popular Japan Broadcasting Corp. TV drama “Oshin” during her childhood.

She was also motivated to study in Japan because of the economic crisis and lack of jobs in her homeland.

“All wealthier people are heading out for the rest of the world,” she said.

She used to pack products at a logistics company. Now that her Japanese skills have dramatically improved, she works at a sushi restaurant.

“The workplace is fun since I can speak Japanese there,” she said.

Chinese and Vietnamese formerly made up a considerable portion of students at Tomifuji Foreign Language Academy.

But now, students from 10 countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Uzbekistan, are taking classes. A growing number of students are also coming from Myanmar following the military coup there last year.

Although the academy holds classes on a floor of an office building, it plans to acquire an additional space to create more classrooms and expand enrollment.

“We are seeking a new property,” said Reika Fujimoto, chair of the academy.

Compared with Europe, the United States and Australia, studying in Japan does not require that much of an initial investment because foreign students can work for up to 28 hours per week.

Most students here take part-time jobs to cover living and education expenses.

One student at Tomifuji Foreign Language Academy works overnight shifts at a bento factory two or three times a week.

Given the recent labor crunch in Japan, foreign students with part-time jobs have become essential at workplaces nationwide. They account for 20 percent of all non-Japanese workers in the country.

When asked about their future dreams, most students at the school said they “want to get into a college or technical school to find employment in Japan.”

Fujimoto said a student with a gift of sweets visited her office to express gratitude for being able to get into an advanced school.

“Of course, the gift is not the point,” Fujimoto said. “If those who adapt to Japan continue to study and gain employment here, they will undoubtedly contribute to the country. The number of such people should rise.”


In 2008, the administration of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced plans to bring 300,000 foreign students to Japan.

The goal was met in 2017.

Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has further raised the target.

The number of Japanese language schools soared over that period. Students typically enroll at these schools for a few years before applying to universities and technical schools in Japan.

The Justice Ministry currently grants student visas to students at a record 824 Japanese language schools. The number has nearly doubled in about 10 years.

Joint-stock companies run about half of these language schools. Others are managed by colleges and technical schools in hopes that the language students will eventually apply to their institutes of higher learning.

Japanese language schools have also been set up in depopulated areas, including a town in Hokkaido, to revitalize local communities.

In fiscal 2018, 3.85 million people studied the Japanese language outside Japan, according to a triennial survey by the Japan Foundation, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

That number was more than 30 times higher than the figure of 40 years earlier, when such research began.

Forty percent of the language learners were in East Asia and 30 percent were in Southeast Asia.

Many people, particularly in Southeast Asia, are learning Japanese before coming to Japan for the foreign technical training program.