Ji Young was 13 when she moved from Seoul to a small village in Yamagata in 1999. Her mother had arrived from Korea a few months earlier to marry a Japanese man.
Entering the local high school, she struggled at first with the language, cultural differences, and relations with friends, though quickly picked up spoken Japanese. Ji Young’s mother’s case was a fairly common example of a non-Japanese woman marrying a Japanese man who brings (or is later joined by — “yobiyose”) a child or children (“tsureko”) from a first marriage.
And Yamagata Prefecture is a fairly typical destination for such children.
This region of around 1.25 million people located in Tohoku, was the first place in Japan to officially “bring in” brides from abroad, in 1985, triggering a nation-wide international marriage boom. Today, one in 17 (6.1 percent) of all marriages in the prefecture are international marriages, compared with around one in 20 nationally.
And while most of the children of international marriages are born and brought up in Japan, usually hold Japanese citizenship and speak fluent Japanese, stepchildren like Ji Young are typical of what researchers currently refer to as “newcomer” children — those children who were born and brought up outside of Japan.
Haruo Ota, perhaps the leading researcher in this area, argues that the growing presence of these children in Japanese society presents one of the most significant historical challenges to the Japanese public school system.
At the moment, however, neither local nor national governments are adequately addressing the challenge of newcomer children outside urban areas, despite the fact that it is the more commonly observed situation throughout Japan.
According to government figures for 2004, the number of registered foreign children of compulsory school age was 120,417, with the number actually enrolled in Japanese public schools standing at 70,345.
While the discrepancy can be partly explained by enrollment in private, ethnic, and international schools, there are also estimated to be a large number of non-attendees, particularly among children of “nikkeijin.”
Of the 70,345 attendees, 19,678 were classified as “requiring Japanese language instruction,” with 84 percent actually receiving some kind of support. Broken down by region, Aichi Prefecture had the highest number (3,057) of students classified as needing language support, while Yamagata ranked in the lower half, with only 73 students.
These figures form the background for a glut of recent research on newcomer children in Japanese public schools. The vast majority of this work has focused on what have been called “diversity points,” urban areas with large visible concentrations of non-Japanese, including not only Aichi Prefecture but also places such as Kanagawa Prefecture (Kawasaki City), Shizuoka Prefecture (Hamamatsu City), Gunma Prefecture (Ota City), as well as Tokyo and Osaka.
However, most children who require Japanese instruction are not concentrated in one area but spread across Japan, with over 80 percent of schools and more than half of villages, towns, and cities having four or fewer such students.
In other words, statistically, regions such as Yamagata do, in some ways, better reflect the situation and experiences of the majority of non-Japanese children in Japanese public schools compared with the diversity points.
However, despite the fact that the children in these nonmetropolitan regions represent some of the most needy cases, they tend to be ignored by researchers and their schools ineligible for government support.
A further problem is the category “foreign students who need Japanese instruction” itself.
First, there is no clear official definition of the term, judgment usually being left to individual schools.
Second, once students are adjudged to have reached a certain level of Japanese — usually proficiency in daily conversation and basic reading — they “disappear” from the statistics, typically after a year or so of schooling.
Third, children who are born and brought up in Japan and/or who possess dual nationality are not included in the category. Thus, although the figure of 73 children “who need Japanese instruction” gives the impression of a very low level of cultural diversity, this is in reality only the tip of the multicultural iceberg.
The 20 percent of schools which have more than four students deemed to require language help have generally enjoyed significant support from the Ministry of Education (MEXT). Since 1992, additional teachers have been dispatched to individual schools specifically to teach Japanese as a second language (JSL) and provide guidance on school culture. In 2004, for example, 985 such teachers were dispatched, though not all of these were Japanese teaching specialists.
Unfortunately, the 80 percent of public schools in Japan with four or fewer such students generally fail to qualify for these kinds of national assistance. As a result, support tends to come not from inside but from outside the school. Sometimes, volunteer organizations are the only source of support for many newcomer children in Japan.
In this respect, the support offered by grassroots organizations all over Japan fills a crucial gap.
According to a Cabinet Office survey, as of November 2004 there were more than 19,000 officially licensed NPOs nation-wide, a six-fold increase over four years.
And although there is no precise data on how many of these specifically support newcomer children, 3.3 percent of civic organizations, including NPOs, gave education as their main activity, with a further 17.4 percent involved in a secondary role.
In Yamagata, the necessity of providing newcomer children with appropriate Japanese language support was first discussed in a December 2001 symposium sponsored by IVY, a local NGO. Since then, progress in the form of practical policy response has been mixed. The prefectural government’s recent 10-year plan barely mentioned the issue. On the municipal level, Yamagata City has seen the most promising initiatives.
In May 2004, Yamagata City International Friendship Association (YIFA) — an independent organization largely funded by the city government — made use of a one-off national government regional development grant to establish a “Resident Foreigner School Support Program.”
Aimed at children between five and 20 and utilizing both bilingual staff and student volunteers, the program offers both intensive five-day-a-week classes for new arrivals and supplementary classes at weekends for those already attending school.
Unfortunately, the outlook for such organizations is uncertain. The YIFA program barely survived into its second year following the end of the initial government grant and only last minute funds from the city government saved the program, albeit one that had to be drastically cut back.
“Basically, with the lack of resources we are unable to provide proper support,” one veteran says. “Moreover, with administrative restrictions being so stifling, I wonder just for who and why we’re doing this.”
As numbers of NPOs and other civic organizations continue to increase nationally in order to satisfy the needs of growing local educational diversity, funding is likely to become even tighter and red tape more cumbersome.
Ji Young, the 13-year-old Korean girl who followed her mother to Yamagata, was lucky to have a supportive family, friends, teachers, and neighbors in her struggle to adapt to Japanese public school life. But thousands of students in hundreds of schools across Japan continue to struggle with little or no support at all.