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Educators fret fate of nation’s language

Institute saga shows Japanese needs master plan

by Kazuaki Nagata

Last year, more than 10,000 people spoke out against the government’s apparent disregard for Japanese-language education when it submitted a bill to effectively abolish the National Institute for Japanese Language.

The semigovernmental institute, established in 1948 by the government, has been researching the spoken, written and other aspects of the language as it is actually used today. It is the most authoritative research entity on the language and promotes its study by tracking modern usage and providing raw data crucial to the management of national language policy.

It also compiles a linguistic database that can serve as the basis for Japanese-language education.

Many in the field of Japanese-language education felt the move underlined the government’s lack of vision. It also convinced them the nation is in serious need of a master plan as the declining population makes the prospect of higher immigration a certainty rather than a possibility.

“The basic vision for Japanese-language education has never been proposed by the government, and the master plan is literally to fill that lack of vision,” said Kazuhiro Imamura, director of the Society for Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language.

There isn’t a lot of time to act, he said, because there are a variety of problems interfering with efforts to properly disseminate the language.

For instance, the Brazilian and Peruvian communities providing much of cheap labor in Japan, as well as the Indonesian and Filipino nurses hoping to fill a critical labor shortage in the medical services industry, are all struggling to survive because of the government’s lack of vision on teaching Japanese, claims Imamura, who is also an associate professor of Japanese-language education at Hitotsubashi University.

The government-sponsored bill, submitted in January 2009, proposed integrating NIJL with the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation, an obscure group of institutions that can be used by universities to “contribute to academic development.”

The move would have stripped NIJL of its independence, allowing Inter-University Research to dictate its activities.

After the bill was submitted, a group of Japanese-language educators drafted a petition to save the institute, collecting 11,695 signatures in just two weeks.

It worked. The petition succeeded in persuading lawmakers that additional resolutions were needed to ensure NIJL’s critical functions would be preserved after its integration with IURIC. The Diet passed the bill in March 2009.

Nevertheless, the whole attempt to ditch NIJL triggered an outpouring of frustration with language-teaching policy. So Imamura and others decided to form a group to pursue a master plan and a law for teaching Japanese.

Their frustration stems from the fact that many of the tasks related to teaching Japanese are handled by different ministries, which gives rise to sectionalism and promotes ineffectiveness, Imamura said.

“Japan has no government office or agency that specially handles Japanese-language teaching, and the country does not look at various problems related to Japanese-language education in a comprehensive manner,” he said, adding the government is also incapable of dealing with those problems.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers paralyzed the banking system and ushered in the Great Recession, many Brazilian and Peruvian breadwinners lost their manufacturing jobs and found themselves unable to put their children through local community schools, which cater to immigrant populations but can be costly.

They still had the option of sending them to public schools, but Japanese schools are often avoided because of problems with the language barrier and cultural differences.

“If this problem happened to Japanese people whose education is guaranteed by law, it would be taken as a huge problem,” said Tetsuya Kimura, a STJFL member and part-time professor at Kyorin University.

If there was a master plan or law that could guarantee the rights of non-Japanese to learn the language, things would be better, Imamura said.

The Indonesian and Filipino nurses coming to Japan meanwhile are struggling to pass the language exam needed to become licensed nurses. Although they are given six months of Japanese lessons before they start work, it’s not enough without decent learning materials, Imamura said.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Aug. 3, Wahyudin, an Indonesian caregiver who came to Japan two years ago, explained how tough it is for nurse and caregiver hopefuls to pass the language qualification exam.

“Passing the one-time exam while working three years is not easy,” said Wahyudin, who goes by one name and works in Tokushima Prefecture.

Nurses must pass the national exam within three years, while caregivers have four years.

To even take the exam, applicants must have three years of on-the-job training here, which means they have only one shot at succeeding.

The exam is said be difficult and filled with many technical terms and hard-to-read kanji. So far, only three of the 1,112 nurses and caregivers who came over under economic partnership agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines have managed to pass.

Wahyudin said that while his experience as a caregiver in Japan has been useful and precious, he is greatly worried by the upcoming language test.

Although the trade ministry pushed for the EPAs, Imamura said it did not really think deeply about how the nurses and caregivers would cope with the language.

“Why do we need a master plan? Because we can come up with some measures beforehand when we face some problems related to Japanese teaching,” Imamura said.

Meanwhile, the education ministry said it is aware of the various problems and is trying to handle related policies in a more systematic and unified manner.

Masaharu Nakagawa, senior vice minister of education, said he has set up a panel to review the problems. Nakagawa, however, admitted the way the government has handled Japanese-language education has been by and large ineffective, although the individual programs are quite sound.

For instance, the Japan Foundation, which promotes the language overseas, drafts Japanese textbooks tailored to each country, but not textbooks that are widely used by foreigners in Japan.

“If such textbooks are specifically made for the Brazilian community and used effectively by them in Japan, it would be a different story,” Nakagawa said.

Nakagawa said the first thing to do is to create a system to unify Japanese education policy and then consider drafting law if necessary.

“If the government mishandles immigration policy, some immigrants would be relegated to the bottom of society,” he said. “We need to organize the education system in order not to let that happen.”