Reader asks for advice regarding Chinese “Trainees” exploitation, stolen wallet, and local police


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Hi Blog.  I received this message a few days ago.  It’s self-explanatory.  Advice welcome.  Debito


June 11, 2010

Dear Mr. Debito:
I am currently living in Japan and working as an English teacher in a small town. I have lived in this town for almost two years. In that time I have come across two very distressing problems and no clear way to solve them. Both take some time to explain. Please forgive me if this email is a bit lengthy:

I’ve been teaching private lessons to a sweet old Japanese lady for almost two years. Last September, she surprised me with an odd question:

”Sensei, would you like to learn Chinese?”
”Well,” I said, ”I’m already pretty busy studying Japanese at the moment. My plate is kind of full…”
”Well,” she said, ”I have a farmer friend with four Chinese girls working for him. They’re very nice, and they’re all young and beautiful….”
”You know,” I said, ”Learning another language is always a good idea.”
I drove down to meet them. They’re a really swell bunch of girls, and we became friends almost instantly. One day, I invited them out with my other friends to see a festival in a nearby town. It was then that I found out that:

They work every single day
They receive only 70,000yen a month
They are not allowed internet or a phone
After the workday, they must go back to the house which the farmer built for them and not come out.

This bothered me for a long time, but I didn’t do anything because I thought it was Japanese law. Needless to say, I was pretty angry at Japan.
The farmer seemed okay with having people over, however, so I began to organize movie nights, parties, etc at the farm so the girls could hang out with other people and so more people could be aware of their situation. I’ve also been reading up on the Labor Standards Law, etc, and found that what the farmer is doing is illegal…in principle.
I debated for a long time about whether or not to call the cops on him. One thing that kept me from doing so was the possibility that the girls themselves might be here illegally, and my meddling would get them shipped back to China. However, this possibility seems less likely the more I talk to them. They appear to be on one of those three year ”foreign trainee” programs I’ve been reading about.
Another possibility is that they handed over their freedom in order to earn an amount they couldn’t dream of earning back home. They may be sending it back to their families who need it. I’ve found out a bit more; apparently the farmer does take them out sometimes, for shopping, hanami, even to the JLPT. One of the girls just recently passed nikkyu and is gearing up for ikkyu in the summer. The last thing I want is to ruin this for them. And yet I can’t help but be angry at the farmer for denying them other basic things like freedom and a proper wage.
Yet another deterrent are all the stories of bad cops here. At best, they seem silly and useless; at worst, corrupt and dangerous. I don’t want to get the girls in more trouble than they already are. Also, I figure if the farmer ever knew I’d even thought about calling the cops, that’d be the end of our little visits.

Then something happened to me that made me glad I’d kept my mouth shut:

My wallet was stolen. The police think it’s probably a student who’s been following me around recently, and who knows where I live, but refuse to approach him directly. We explained the situation to the principal, but he also refused, saying it was ”impossible to ask a child something like that.”
I’ve had several meetings with the Board of Education and the police, both of whom have told me in private that they are sure the kid did it, but are publicly saying I lost the wallet and suggesting I say the same, if know what’s good for me.
I’m pretty sure I’m never gonna see that wallet again. I don’t think there’s much more I can do about it. Pretty much, I’ve decided to regard this as a really, really expensive lesson on Japanese culture. Expensive, but also valuable. I’m just glad nobody was hurt and it was only my wallet.
However, I am worried about my identity. I’ve heard that thieves here sell stolen wallets to the yakuza and then the yakuza can frame you for a crime. What steps can I take against that? If it was the kid, then I don’t have to worry, but there were other people there that day. I think once the cops won the argument about the kid, they stopped the investigation. They’re not even looking anymore.
Maybe I’m being paranoid. I dunno. It seems unlikely that I could get framed for something if I have my own license on me. But then again…this is Japan. Stranger things have happened.

At least now I know not to tell the cops about the girls. Odds are they know already, and can’t or won’t help. I’ve researched further and found that being in one of these ”foreign trainee” programs excludes you from protection of the Labor Standards Law, injury compensation, etc. I think steps were taken a while ago to correct this (after the first year, you change from ”trainee” to ”worker”?), but I’m not sure if they succeeded or how effective they are. I’m still researching.

So that’s where I am now. The wallet seems to be a lost cause at this point, but I really want to help my friends. I’m a bit in over my head, however, and would greatly appreciate any advice you have for me. I’ve read some cases where foreign laborers were able to escape to safe places and get compensation for their mistreatment. I would like to see this happen, but I don’t know where to go or who to ask. I’ve been very careful in regards to the farmer; he still lets me and my friends come over and I don’t think he suspects I’m having these thoughts. If he did, we’d likely never see the girls again.
I know I only have one chance at this, which is why I’ve been waiting. I’m not a patient guy; this is probably the most patient I’ve ever been about anything in my life, simply because I’m scared to death of botching it. But waiting is also painful. I feel terrible for doing nothing. Please help, if you can, and thank you.


28 comments on “ Reader asks for advice regarding Chinese “Trainees” exploitation, stolen wallet, and local police

  • My, my…..quite the story….perhaps you can secretly look at other jobs and ask if they would be willing to take them in? Perhaps you should bring the issue to a higher place then the local cops? I’m sorry if I am not being any help. Thank you so much for thinking about these girls.

  • I guess the first question you need to ask here is whether or not the girls are aware of their situation. Do they know they’re being treated unfairly, and if so, do they want to do something about it? It’s their situation, so if you want to take action then I think it is important to do so with their understanding and consent.

    If they are aware and do want to see some change, you might consider contacting your local labor consultation office. There should be one inside your local prefectural office and hopefully another one lying around somewhere nearby. These are your first ports of call for labor disputes, and if you are lucky they might even have access to language services such as multilingual staff, etc. to aid in interpreting.

    I can only offer annecdotal evidence, but in my experience dealing with the trainee program I have found that it is very difficult to build and sustain a case. For example, do you have written documents such as contracts or payslips that detail their working situation? In many cases no formal contract exists, or if it does then it is unsigned, and money is generally handed over in cash and without a slip. In short, there is little to actually prove their situation is unfair.

    I have also found that once a trainee starts to kick up a fuss, the higher uppers will do everything they can to have the ‘trouble-maker’ fired so that they run out of money and have no choice but to return to their home country. Usually this happens part-way through proceedings, and the investigation ends up being terminated.

  • Have you considered asking the girls what their take on the situation is? Sounds to me that you’re assuming that these girls are not fully aware of their own situation. As you state yourself, what might be a bum deal for you might be a golden ticket for them.

    Instead of losing sleep over what is essentially their business, I suggest you bring up the subject directly with them. Stepping in as an unwarranted guardian angel may, as you’ve already figured out yourself, do more harm than good.

    If it for some reason is not possible to discuss this matter directly with those involved (the girls) I suggest you let go and assume that these are grown up people with their own agendas and, importantly, free will. It certainly sounds (from your description) like they’re receiving a deeply unfair treatment, but the well being and opinions of those directly involved has to be favoured before what might be the principally correct action to take.

    My 2 yen,

  • One aspect of the story that caught my attention is “they are not allowed an internet or phone”. I presume this just means the farmer can’t or won’t install it in the house he built for them.

    To prevent them from becoming isolated and not being able to contact their relatives, why not buy them a pre paid phone? They only cost about 5-7000 yen and perhaps they could all use it for emergencies.

  • Yang Yan Zhao says:

    They very well might not think they’re being taken advantage of. 70,000¥ Yen is 5,226.56 CNY. That’s about what designers and lower level skilled labor gets here in Beijing. If you were in the countryside 1,000 RMB a month would be considered a really good salary. It’s a lot better than working in Foxcon style factories. Most of those factories keep their employees on premises too.

    So yeah, they’re totally getting ripped off, but if they’re getting room and board for free they could easily save money to send back home. They might think it’s a good deal.

  • I agree with the above – the girls might be well aware of the situation and perfectly happy with it. If you haven’t brought the subject up to them directly don’t make decisions for them.

    Now for your wallet. You need to file a formal report, you’ve “talked” to the police but unless you file a formal report of your property being stolen they don’t really have to do anything. My guess is the reason they are publicly saying your wallet is “lost” is it doesn’t go down on their crime statistics as an unsolved crime because it has never been formally reported as a crime. Worst case stop talking to the local cops and go to the station (not the police boxes).

    — Quite right. See HANDBOOK pp. 186-192.

  • If the girls have some money, they should see a lawyer. Consultation is somewhere around 5000 yen per hour. Do not talk to the police since labor law is not in their jurisdiction. If they do not have enough money they can file complaint at 労働基準監督署 (labor standard office).

    As to your lost/stolen wallet, what happens if the same occurs in your home country? Would the police investigate the kid based on whatever evidence there is? If they would not, expect the same from Japanese police.

    — It’s 5000 yen per half hour.

  • With regard to the yakuza part of the question: File a formal report that says your wallet went missing. Gather and maintain evidence of everything you did between the time you lost your wallet and the time you filed the report. That way, if you are accused of anything, you will have clear evidence that it wasn’t you. Prosecutions usually don’t go forward in this country unless they are a “slam dunk,” so if you have any evidence in your favor (and if you avoid signing confessions) you will almost certainly be OK.

  • Michael Weidner says:

    The situation with the girls is a hard one. I’m remiss as to what I would do in your situation for those girls; I think that being social with them and continuing on as you have so far is a good thing. Other than that, I’m not sure what to suggest.

    As for your wallet; it’s your wallet. It was stolen. You have EVERY RIGHT to say it was stolen and to get it back. Talk to the kid directly and say “Look. I know you took my wallet. I just want it back. If you don’t make an issue about it and give it back, I’m not going to say anything.” If he continues to deny or say he was uninvolved with the issue, go to the police. Just because you’re in Japan, the laws of the country don’t magically stop applying. Go to the police and demand they do something about it. The only reason the BOE doesn’t want to do anything about it is because they are lazy and don’t want to cause problems. Theft is Theft. It’s a crime.

  • David in Fukuoka says:

    A wild guess, but I don’t think these girls are stupid (especially if they are studying 2kyu or 1kyu!) or blind to their situation. I would leave them to make their own decisions.

    If you want to fight the good fight and try to ‘help’ them, it will most likely get them in trouble or deported or even worse (Do you know who sent them to the farm, who brokered the deal? Might not be 100% law-abiding folk.). Unless you have the credentials to help them legally, you should not try to do anything on their behalf. You should contact a legal professional for them. But tread lightly. If you tell them ‘you should call a lawyer’ and Pa at the farm gets wind of this, who knows what will happen.

    Your intentions are admirable, but as the visitor trainee system’s framework is broken and neglected as it is, any attempts to improve their situation will more than likely backfire and make it worse for them.

  • I think rather than guessing what they want you should first discretely ask some of your friends if they need help or if they are trapped (economically, physically or psychologically). If they say they are not then just say you are there if they ever change their mind. If they are there on their own volition and generally happy, then I would leave them to it.
    It actually sounds mutually beneficial for the workers and farmer – even if not entirely legal. Although not supported by law (which is thankfully stricter), my personal feeling is that if someone can pack up, leave a situation and essentially be free it may not be ideal, but is certainly not a helpless situation and several grades up from slavery/human trafficking.

    I think you are reading too much into your wallet problem and the relevance of the police involved in that incident to labor standard issues. On your wallet problem though – I really hear @Jerry above, but personally I would just move on, and report all your cards/ID lost. If the kid who stole it is from a family of known trouble makers, it may cause you more problems than it is worth and the police may be advising you to drop it for your own good…I know it sounds terrible and indeed it is, but life is too short for something as trivial as a wallet – the risk of you being set-up in a crime seems to me to be very remote.

  • Isnt there an outside organization that looks into these kind of things, like the one you see on commericals? I forgot the name of it, but I see it everyday almost, I get cable. What I found gets you action in Japan is to take things outside, where it puts pressure on those in power to save face, otherwise they have nothing to loose as the inside mess is all corrupt. But then again, sometimes the outside agencies or NPOs will check to see if you tried to solved it locally. This is the U.S. gov position on everything here. [hyperbolic claim deleted].

    — There are a few organizations out there helping out. I would suggest contacting Torii Ippei at the Zentoitsu Workers Union ( or Solidarity with Migrants Japan ( More details in the documentary SOUR STRAWBERRIES.

  • Mind your own business.
    They’re not being harmed. Compared to western countries, a lot of people in China are dirt poor and are happy for the chance to be in the relatively more affluent Japan. They sound like they’re getting a reasonable deal – accomodation/income/some assistance and the chance to take JLPT.
    If they were being hurt or taken badly advantage of, there would be reason to bring in 3rd parties.
    I don’t trust the police in Japan to handle this sensitively. It could turn out bad for everyone concerned.

    Probably you should be more concerned about your wallet and getting the police to face up to a more accurate record of the crime rate. Then I can stop hearing how Japan is such a “safe country” all the time.

  • Jsut a word of caution. Not sure if this is true, as laws “to stop terrorism” keep getting written and expanded at an alarming rate. Regarding the very good idea to maybe get them a rechargeable phone, I assume that means you do it in your own name, providing your own ID, which gets recorded somewhere.

    It might now techincally be illegal to then give the phone to someone else. Just speculating. It’s a possibility, maybe someone here knows more?
    So helping them use their own IDs to ge the phone, and maybe giving them the gift of phone cards? Or are these phones “not available” to people on such visas, due to laws, or just stupid phone company “regulations”.

    Just a side note, but how do farmer trainee salaries compare to the pay of Japanese farmers? Aside from maybe the farm owner, what does someone who works for the farm owner make? Do they get free room and board? I know it’s pretty irrelevant compared to basic labor rights, unemployment insurance, etc. ,though. Just curious. Can we say, “Chinese trainees make less than half the typical Japanese farm laborer AND have no rights?” or even spin it in a way nationalists could go for, “Employers are siphoning jobs away from Japanese people to cheap Chinese laborers!”

    — The answer is, they don’t always get free room and board. In fact, various media notes (links from this article) things like many NJ laborers being forced to pay for rent and food in addition to their already low wages, on top of getting getting paid far less than even the legally-sanctioned minimum wage (that’s why they’re called “Trainees”, not “Workers” (roudousha), so Japan’s labor laws don’t apply to them). Documentary SOUR STRAWBERRIES also notes some are getting paid less in Japan than in China, but they can’t leave the job because they have to pay off travel loans they took out to get here. Even the UN has recently noted the virtual slavery of the situation.

    Hearing this wage level (remember, less than [200 man per year, or 16.6 man per month] is classified as Working Poor in Japan), and the fact that these people have no freedom of movement or communication with the outside world, I think they’ve gotten a raw deal. Commenters here are free to tell the author to mind his own business. But they shouldn’t try to argue that these people are probably doing better here than in China. They’re essentially working-poor workers (making less than half working-poor wages) in a prison.

  • Of course it isnt technically illegal to give or lend a phone to someone else.

    You bought it, it is your property, you can do what the hell you like with it.

    Sure,there is a record of you buying it, but a pre paid phone runs only if you keep buying cards for it.

  • mike mullins says:

    How about gathering information on the girls situation? Maybe work together with the girls and try to get any kind of documents possible.
    Any papers official or not. How about photographing and filming as much as you can about their life here in Japan? Their living quarters, food, beds inside and out, when they wake up and sleep what their actual work is, anything that is connected to them could be possible evidence later.
    How about getting in the farmers head? Find out his intentions. Is he really a nice guy just trying to keep his farm going or is he a racist doing bad things. Go drinking with him and his friends and bring up the topic of china and the chinese see what he and his friends say after they have had some alcohol. The main thing might be to just document what is happening until you can find the best way to help.
    How about asking for advice from the american, canadian or chinese embassy or consulate? Any consulate of any country you can contact in Japan. Also how about contacting human rights groups and the united nations?
    But be very careful, people here are very clever and subtle. If you make too much fuss
    too soon they will slowly push you out of the country one way or another. Especially if you do not have a spouse visa or a permanent visa.
    Be extreme careful if you are on a contract system that requires renewing every year. One american guy I know who caused to much trouble was
    told that this time he could renew his contract but that next year he could not. When he politely asked why they said it was because of
    cutbacks. But there never was any cutbacks, they just put someone else in his place after they sent him back to the states. I saw this myself because I work part-time in that school. Watch it! When/if they come after you it will be subtle and indirect and it will all look legal and justified.

  • If you really wanted to help them, find them a secure job. There are many companies that need Chinese speakers these days. Im sure after the stockholm syndrome wears off they will be glad they left. The ojisan has made a “honey trap” situation for them. I been throught that. Psychologicaly it can be hard to leave because you feel there is nothing better. There usually is, you just dont know it. Instead of playing human rights advocate, thats what I would do.

  • Another thing, Im all for helping the Chinese girls, but its very interesting how so many of you will do backflips for them, but never help out others from your same country etc. Some of the most back stabbing people I have met are foriegners from my own country over here. One of you is suggesting taking photos and drinking with the ojisan to get in his head. Wow the effort. If the rest of you would do the same when one of your own kind went down, this might not be such a bad place to live.

  • Mike Says:
    June 17th, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Quote: “…its very interesting how so many of you will do backflips for them, but never help out others from your same country etc.” Unquote

    “I have a farmer friend with four Chinese girls working for him. They’re very nice, and they’re all young and beautiful….”

    ‘Nuff said.

  • @Janet, not ’nuff said. As we re now going off into the realms of wild speculation as to the motivation of the poster, the farmer, and the girls, I will too.

    As Japan remains a major human trafficing destination, with alot of Asian women ending up as prostitutes to work off a debt incurred to the yakuza, etc, any westerner with a shred of decency or moral upbringing (ie. the good readers of this website) is right to be suspicious about how Asian women are treated. I ve known Asian students of Japanese forced into bargirl or veiled prostitution work because they were deceived by unscrupulous individuals or merely deceived by the cost of living here. Some came here for altruistic motives,or to pursue a dream and ended up in a living hell.

    I think we can all agree that westerners occupy a more “privileged” position in Japan, and don’t have it nearly as bad as people from elsewhere, e.g. these girls from China getting 70 000 yen a month.
    When British women Lucie and Lindsay Ann were murdered this sparked an international outrage, but when Filipinas are murdered, we hear little about it, or the murderer gets off to kill again, such as related here:

    Final thought: maybe the farmer is hoping to get a wife out of it, too? Shortage of brides in rural areas.

    Again, I m just pursuing this thread of fantasticl speculation that others have started to it’s logical, TV drama-worthy conclusion. I m sure the reality is alot more mundane.

  • “…its very interesting how so many of you will do backflips for them, but never help out others from your same country etc.”

    I’m part of a group that fights to end human trafficking both in America and worldwide. Sexual slavery, cheap labor, the works. Many of the cases I see are young people who are lured into big countries such as the US and Japan with the promise of a better life, income, and education. Much like these girls here. Please don’t make assumptions.

  • Thanks so much to everyone who commented. Your advice has left me much food for thought. However, I’d left a few things out for the sake of brevity(haha), which I think I should have clarified.

    First, I have no intention of meddling unless I am absolutely sure of several things. These include:

    * How they got here, through what program(JITCO?)
    * If they knew the details of the job before they came
    * Their exact wage VS the wage they were promised
    * If they like their job/employer(i.e. not abusive or unfair)
    * If they WANT to be helped
    *That there is an uncorrupted authority to which I can go that will handle the case fairly and justly.

    If my concern for their current situation is anything to go by, I am equally afraid of it becoming worse through any action of mine.

    Second, only one of the girls managed to pass nikkyu. The others failed. Their collective Japanese is about as good as mine(sankyu?), and their English is non-existent. We communicate mainly in broken Japanese, and it’s usually the nikkyu girl who does most of the talking.
    I admit I don’t know a whole lot about their situation. Gathering info has been slow and tedious, but I’m worried that too much poking around will raise the farmer’s suspicions. In fact, most of the information I have comes from the sweet old Japanese lady I teach, who golfs with him every weekend.
    For those reasons, I have not yet asked the girls whether or not they want help. I’m waiting for a time when no one is around and I can be absolutely sure nothing will be lost in translation. Finding willing speakers of Mandarin and getting them down to the farm has proven difficult, however. I also don’t want to give them false hope.
    They apparently come from a really small town in Shandong, a name which sent up red flags, as many of the nastier stories I’ve read involve trainees from that particular area. While I don’t know enough yet to say how similar this case is to the ones I’ve read, there many familiar points, such as the reduced wage and the alleged three year period of “training”. In other cases, this period is all too often extended indefinitely because the trainees don’t even make enough to be able to return home.
    The lady I teach says the reason the farmer won’t let the girls out is because he is afraid of them defecting. He would be held responsible, and for that reason he has chosen to lock them up. This sounds all too similar to cases where the employer would keep trainees’ bankbooks and passports in order to keep them from escaping and finding other jobs, except in this case, they are being physically held.
    As for free room and board, I have no idea. They could very well be living there for free, or the farmer could be charging them. He may even argue that the low wage is due to the cost of keeping them, a cost which the girls themselves may or may not be aware. Or he may not. Either way, it’s worth asking about.
    In any case, I see now that talking with them is the next step. If indeed they do want help, I can try some of the organizations mentioned above. If not, then all is well(kind of). Thanks again for the advice, and wish me luck!

    -Original Poster

  • Hmm…this is a very interesting case. I wish you the best of luck and hope that you find out the truth.

  • Well, back in highschool I was with the Fair Trade Association(dealt with slave labor and overall slavery awareness) and during that time(I have graduated since then) I, along with the group, worked with OATH or Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans. I am still in touch with members of the FTA and I continue to have a relationship with the OATH.

  • As to the wallet, I’d like to add that a report was indeed filed and an investigation carried out, but it was halted prematurely when the principle decided that neither he, nor I nor any of the teachers were to approach the child regarding the subject of the wallet, publicly or privately, as such a question would surely trouble the young child’s “pyuaa haato”.(actual words).
    In the meetings that followed(the last of which was held at the station), police and members of the BOE asked me to please understand the delicate nature of the case and of the boy’s reputation, and to forget about the wallet. They even went so far as to suggest that I lie to American authorities about losing it.

    “You’re asking me to lie to the American police?”
    “You’re thinking of solutions that are difficult for me, but easy for you.”
    With a smile. “That’s right.”

    Not knowing where to go from there(where do you go after the police tell you to bugger off?), and fearing that too much noise about the wallet would make it harder to discretely help the girls, I decided to shut up about it, at least for now.

    Just wanted to clarify.


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