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Kikokushijo: returnees to a country not yet ready for them

Struggling to fit back in and ignored by policymakers, kikokushijo could point the way forward for Japan

by Teru Clavel

Special To The Japan Times

In 2011, 780,000 Japanese were living abroad, of whom 67,000 were school-age children. During that period, the number of students who returned to Japan after being abroad for a year or longer was 9,990, with 70 percent of these students having been educated at non-Japanese overseas schools.

These returnees, or kikokushijo, are a diverse bunch, with varying levels of foreign- and native-language fluency, acculturation in one or more foreign countries, and education in Japanese. Upon their return to Japan, because they have typically picked up behavior, languages and even values that may be at odds with those traditionally practiced here, kikokushijo often face an intense re-acculturation period, during which they are expected to fall into line with Japanese societal norms.

Though their number has tripled since 1977, and despite the recent government push to develop gurōbaru jinzai, or global human resources, their existence has been largely ignored by policymakers. Kikokushijo became a major national issue in the 1970s, when large numbers of them returned to Japan unable to communicate effectively in Japanese. In the subsequent two decades, schools from elementary through university created special programs and quotas to accommodate the returnees, while Japanese schools were established overseas where they could keep up their native-language skills.

According to Roger Goodman, professor of modern Japanese studies at Oxford University and editor of the 2012 book “A Sociology of Japanese Youth: From Returnees to NEETs,” after these interventions in the 1970s and ’80s, “As entrance into a prestigious university basically guaranteed entrance into a prestigious company, returnees were no longer considered as having ‘problems’ but were seen as those with unfair advantages.”

Similarly, professor Tomoko Yoshida of Keio University’s Department of Business and Commerce and author of numerous studies of the kikokushijo experience, says: “I noticed in the ’70s up to the mid-’80s you could find hundreds of studies and bookstores filled with research on the returnee, and now there is almost no scholarship on the issue as it is a problem deemed to have been solved . . . which is not true. I think as a society, we feel like we are done.”

Now, although MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) has been involved in the development, funding and promotion of special programs for returnees over the past three decades, no policies exist that directly relate the kikokushijo experience to our increasingly globalized world.

Of course, the major advantage kikokushijo have over most Japanese students is that they are bilingual and bicultural (and in some cases multilingual and multicultural). Many return speaking English or another language and, according to Yoshida, by “code-switching between cultures,” they can draw on their Japanese or other learned cultures according to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Their exposure to multiple cultures often means that they are highly adaptable and tolerant of difference.

As kikokushijo move into the workplace, for example, they have the skills to conduct business across cultures.

“The Japanese way of doing business is totally different from Western and global ways of business,” says Noriko Suzuki, a business consultant based in Tokyo who also runs an interest group for parents of kikokushijo. “The American, Chinese, Korean and many European management styles are becoming more globalized now, so once you have the skills of doing business in, let’s say, an American business environment, the skills are transferable. But the Japanese way of doing business is very particular.”

Another quality many kikokushijo share is resiliency, with most having overcome struggles to adapt, both in Japan and abroad. Suzuki explains that when Japanese families first go overseas and enroll their children in the local school system, parents will often stay up well into the night with their children to complete homework assignments though neither can speak English.

“It’s really a team effort, and they don’t sleep for a year. They work so hard and they put so much investment in it, and after three to five years, when they can catch up with their peers and start getting good grades, it’s time to go back to Japan.”

What’s more, before returning to the Japanese school system, these students often have to attend Japanese juku (cram schools) abroad to prepare them for the middle or high school entrance exam (juken). Erina Yoshii, a third-year senior high school student at Keio Shonan Fujisawa Junior and Senior High School in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, was born in England but later moved to Seattle and then New Jersey, where she started going to juku in 7th grade, the first year of middle school. In the year of her entrance exam, she began attending juku five days per week for three to five hours a day. Her family even relocated within New Jersey in part to be closer to the cram school. Five months before the test, she switched from a regular American school to a Japanese-language one.

Even after the all-important exam is over, the struggle to adjust to the new academic and social environment has only just begun. As Nick Taylor, senior returnee supervisor at Shibuya Makuhari Senior and Junior High School, explains, “It’s incredibly stressful getting into a school, and once you get in you have to catch up — especially in science or math, where Japan is ahead.”

Yoshii says she was a top student in the U.S., but her grades in Japan have fallen.

“It’s difficult for me because I started lower, as my Japanese skills were not that good.” And socially, she says, “It was hard to keep up with conversations about TV programs, political news and celebrities — I still can’t keep up with those.”

Another strength among kikokushijo is their ability to see Japan through an international lens. Yoshii says: “If Japan stepped into the world more and interacted with other countries more, I think a lot more students would want to learn English because they would understand it’s a necessary tool in order to expand Japan.”

And for those domestic students who have not been abroad, returnees can be a positive influence.

“It’s not just that returnees themselves are cosmopolitan,” explains Yoshida. “Through them, society is changing. . . . They are slowly changing the people around them through interactions.”

Kikokushijo want to share their experiences and feel a deep commitment to give back to Japan. At Taylor’s school, he says, “The heart of the volunteer group is driven by the returnees who are used to seeing these kinds of groups overseas.”

Perhaps the greatest potential hurdle awaiting returnees is the risk that they will not be readily accepted into their native culture, which emphasizes conformity. For this reason, kikokushijo often face discrimination and bullying. This can exacerbate the returnees’ confusion about their cultural identity, when already, Taylor says, “maybe they don’t feel very Japanese when they come back.”

Sotaro Irie, a returnee who lived in New Jersey until senior high school, calls the adjustment period “the hardest time in my life.” He explains: “I learned that in the U.S., if you have a different opinion, you say it — there is no right answer, so you do not have to be shy or embarrassed. And, in Japan, there is a group opinion with one answer.”

Another obstacle is Japan’s test-based shingaku (proceeding to the next level of school) system, which can impede further development of a kikokushijo’s abilities. Though families with children of early elementary school age tend to move overseas together, as children near middle-school age, the father will typically leave his wife and children behind to ensure that the children don’t fall too far behind in the Japanese educational system and end up unprepared for high school juken. (Juken is required for entrance to all senior high schools because high school is not compulsory in Japan.)

A knock-on effect of this shingaku system is that there is no time for continued higher-level foreign-language studies, and “it gets forgotten,” says Yasuo Ichimura, managing director of the Japan Foreign Trade Commission (JTFC), who, in tandem with The Japan Overseas Enterprises Association, has lobbied the government for educational reforms to support kikokushijo.

Suzuki agrees: “They are forced to stop there, and they have to assimilate into Japanese culture and excel in a Japanese study environment.” Because there is little English spoken in Japan, Suzuki continues, “There is not much opportunity for them to grow their ability. Just because they studied English in grades two and three, it is still not perfect when they return.”

Kikokushijo tend to be incredibly bored in their school English conversation classes but struggle with obscure grammar lessons presented by Japanese English teachers, who often have little idea about how to teach returnees.

Similarly, there are limited opportunities for kikokushijo to continue to practice critical thinking, debate and presentation skills that many acquired while overseas.

“That is one of their greatest strengths — their ability to discuss and have an open mind about topics,” Taylor of Shibuya Makuhari says. “But they don’t really have a chance to share their view in most educational environments.”

Yuka Irie, mother of returnee Sotaro, describes an incident in her son’s high school classroom: “My son raised his hand and he asked a question, and the kid next to my son said, ‘Don’t disturb the class, and shut your mouth.’ ”

Kikokushijo are placed in the same classes as their Japanese peers, and they tend to struggle because they are not at the same academic level in certain subjects. This can mean that they begin to doubt themselves.

“It’s harder for me to get good grades in Japan,” Yoshii says. “I think of what would have happened if I had stayed in America — it could have been a different future for me.”

The Japanese system also requires students to decide between a math/science or humanities/social sciences track in high school to prepare for university entry. Because math and science are usually the most difficult academic subjects for kikokushijo, the odds are stacked against them pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — an area many researchers in Japan would agree is in dire need of bilinguals.

Yoshida believes that the kikokushijo best equipped to overcome these challenges are those with supportive parents and communities.

“It seems like there are pockets — their family accepts them for who they are, or they go to a school where they have friends who are returnees or who have studied abroad,” Yoshida explains. “The hope is that the pockets will get bigger and will merge.”

Shibuya Makuhari in Chiba is one of the few schools in Japan with a department devoted to the needs of kikokushijo. A private school founded in 1983 with a tailor-made program for returnees including a separate, streamed English program, Shibuya Makuhari also has a strong alumni network in place to support returnees after they graduate.

“Results indicate that those who enjoy special provisions are less likely to experience adjustment difficulties or to feel at a disadvantage, and are more likely to feel accepted by their peers,” says Yoshida.

However, tuition for private schools with such programs may be cost-prohibitive for many kikokushijo families, with fees two to three times higher than those at regular state-run schools.

Ultimately, for the kikokushijo to be a driving force in Japan’s stuttering effort to globalize, society will have to meet multiculturalism halfway.

“It’s not the individual’s problem, it’s society’s problem — society does not think they fit in,” says Yoshida.

This narrow mind-set is of particular concern considering the shrinking population at home, which will inevitably force Japanese firms to increasingly look overseas for opportunities to expand. This in turn strongly suggests that the proportion of kikokushijo in the Japanese school system will continue to increase even as the overall number of students declines.

In a nutshell, the JFTC’s Ichimura asks rhetorically, “Aren’t those who actually experienced living overseas better candidates for globalization than those who have never left Japan?”

Goodman concurs: “It’s a missed opportunity. You have this particular group of people who could be taken advantage of and the state should be mobilizing them far more effectively.”

Next week: The diverse experiences, hopes and dreams of some individual kikokushijo students. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp