WHEN HIROKO TSUKIHI instructs her pupils to write down “water” in kanji, the ideograms derived from Chinese that are used alongside Japan’s home-grown syllabic scripts, they groan. Even for native pupils steeped in the language, kanji take hours to memorise. But Ms Tsukihi teaches immigrant children who have recently arrived in Toyohashi, a city in central Japan, as part of a programme called Mirai (“the future” in Japanese), which provides ten weeks of intensive language classes for middle-school pupils before integrating them into local public schools. The city launched the Mirai programme in 2018. “The schools couldn’t support all the foreign students coming in,” says Ms Tsukihi.
In many parts of the country schools are becoming a bit less homogenous. There are currently 124,000 registered foreign-born children of school age in Japan. Although that is only just over 1% of pupils in the school system, it marks a 30% rise from 2014. A new visa scheme that went into effect in April, meant to lure blue-collar workers into industries facing labour shortages, is expected to bring more immigrants and their children. In the manufacturing hub of Toyohashi, labour-brokers recruit thousands of Brazilians and Filipinos to work in factories every year. Such workers have 1,976 children in the local schools, up from 1,352 five years ago.
The number who require remedial Japanese lessons is rising fast. A government survey found that there were about 51,000 in 2018, a 16% increase from 2016. Schools are struggling. Japanese-language teachers are in short supply. Volunteers help (they make up more than half of all those teaching Japanese to foreign pupils), but many are elderly, and unlikely to keep working for long.
Whether the immigrant children can receive the education they need also depends on where they live. In Toyohashi, which has had a sizeable Brazilian community since the early 1990s, officials help families fill out documents and offer guidance on the school system. In addition to Mirai, Iwata Elementary School, where a quarter of the pupils are foreign, provides interpreters and 200-hour crash courses in Japanese. “We have a long history of welcoming immigrant children. The system already exists,” says Yasue Matsui, who teaches foreign pupils there.
But in places with fewer immigrants, foreign families are often left to fend for themselves. Almost 40% of local governments do not tell foreigners how to enroll their children in school. Even those municipalities that do usually send notices only in Japanese. Pupils sit at their desks without language support and watch the day go by, “as if an electrical circuit to their brain was cut off”, Ms Tsukihi says.
Many pupils in municipalities without academic support end up dropping out of school. “When they go to these public schools, they struggle to learn. And they lose confidence,” says Yoshimi Kojima of Aichi Shukutoku University. Nearly a fifth of immigrant children may not be attending school at all. Under Japanese law, the children of foreign residents can attend state schools free of charge, but are not obliged to go to school, unlike their Japanese counterparts.
The government has been slow to tackle the problem, leaving it to municipalities to make their own arrangements for foreign children. But in June it passed a bill laying out the responsibilities of the national and local governments in promoting language education. Companies are also required to provide foreign employees and their families with Japanese lessons.
Ms Kojima doubts this will change much. “Japan only sees foreigners as a source of labour” and not as valued members of society, she says. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, has repeatedly insisted that the new visa programme bringing more foreigners to the country should not be seen as a source of permanent immigrants, but simply as a means of attracting transient workers. That will come as news to the children in Toyohashi, labouring over their kanji. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Japanese schools are struggling with foreign pupils”