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

  • Mark Makino

    Good, valuable article. This may seem like a nitpick to some, but assuming Japanese must be their native language and Japan their native culture as this author does is unwarranted. In my experience many kikokushijo (the term itself is rather loaded) often have trouble acclimatizing to Japan precisely because it’s not their “native” culture but every acts as if it should be.

    • Hector Q.

      Exactly my thoughts. Same goes for everyone who comes from a different background. Our “native” culture will always be where we were raised.

  • I’ve had a similar experience when we relocated to Italy after a ten years spell in Quebec, I wasn’t totally fluent in Italian and spoke with a French accent. I was put back three times at school because I didn’t understand most of the lessons and the school culture was totally different than the Canadian one. The article seems to gloss over the fact that these kids are probably traumatised ( I know I was ) because of the cultural shock they have to go through, it’s not only about good grades and them being ‘adaptable international citizen’ as a multicultural worker pawn to make businesses look good but also the emotional upheavals they have to endure so that they can ‘fit in’. Because of my bad experience, I’m left with emotional scars even to this day, always second guessing myself and feeling I didn’t belong then, ironically I found more acceptance and a feeling it was ok to be multicultural in a third country (UK) where I’m residing currently.

  • RedBaronsCuz

    The sad thing is, other that the trauma of having to adapt, and feel that you don’t fit in or are far behind is that many kids a bullied foe being different. I saw it happen. Kids who were Japanese, but who could speak perfect English would always sit in abject terror of being called on in English class, because they did not want to be singled out. And usually if they were called on, someone would make a jibe about them. These kids who have been outside are Japan’s future, and sadly, they are not being touted as the magic bullet.

  • JSS00

    I’m a kikoku-shijo! Fortunately, the country that I’ve been in was very tolerant and welcoming, so I had little trouble with it. I guess you could say that I experienced “reverse culture shock” when I got back “home” and found that Japan was so intolerant and close-minded. But even while I was still in Japan, I was pretty open-minded, I think…

    I find many Japanese people, especially on the Internet, to be a bit creepy… unhealthy (though maybe I’m not that different). I feel like I’m going to be traumatized more in Japan. I feel unsafe and unprotected here. There are no “Western values” (that people take for granted) to hold on to.

    I’ve been doing a lot of researches about this country lately, and more and more I look into it, the more I find that this country has a problem, mainly political problems. There are so many things that I would like to improve. I’m thinking of trying to bring some sort of a political movement… and I’m still trying to figure out just how to go on about doing that…

    • Gordon Graham

      What “Western values” exactly do you find lacking in Japan?

  • Dave Jones

    Often in Japan I feel that local people are both welcoming and wary of me (I am a foreigner but I wonder if returnee students and their families feel the same dual response). Part of the problem is that Japanese in Japan don’t have all that much context for the world outside Japan, and on top of that they feel lots of pressure to conform and “be Japanese”, so while there’s certainly a lot of curiosity there’s also an inability to actually execute on that curiosity. Plus, Japan works so smoothly as it is …. so bringing in new ways of doing things isn’t always a priority (despite lots of reasons why new ways of doing things should be considered)

  • James Santagata

    Having seen practically all sides of this issue save for being a kikokou myself, I’ve noticed several common recurring themes as to why kikoku have problems integrating into the workforce. First, they overvalue and focus too much on their English/foreign language skills as well as overseas living experience. I can tell you that in 99% of the cases, these language skills, at least for new grads/recent grads are a very minor aspect of the job. And coming in selling your languages is not only ineffective, its downright dangerous. Come in selling your overseas experience, especially in the wrong way and you aren’t getting the job. Second, in terms of Japanese language ability, I’m surprised at the lack of training or guidance kikoku have had in preparing for interviews, often their lack of keigo usage (forgivable) or sometimes their refusal to use it. Often it seems they want to flaunt their outsider status. I’ve gotten feedback from clients in the past, such as say Dell that said, “He/She came into the interview like we were good friends, too casual Japanese language, etc.” Immediately NG’d. Third, there is a big issue from the domestic side that kikoku are too pushy and way too soon. Again, this often stems from the kikoku relishing or appearing to relish outsider status, which to domestic Japanese seems like a form of Cultural Imperialism or Gaiatsu. And believe me, I’m a doer so I know the feeling but I’ve seen kikoku roll into even places like PWC and think they are gonna change the place overnight. lol. That doesn’t happen _anywhere_, not even in the US, let alone Japan…That said, with proper training of kikoku to understand these issues + some minor expectation setting with the domestic firms, yes, kikoku would provide good value to Japanese firms — heck, when many gaishikei first came to Japan in the 70’s and 80’s, they couldn’t get “pedigreed Japanese” workers, so they went for the kikoku that had the bilingual and bicultural skills….

  • Earl Kinmonth

    As it happens, I’m lecturing on kikokushijo 帰国子女 tomorrow and will have a member of staff born in Venezuela and educated in Britain talk about her experiences. Overall, I think the international understanding that kikokushijo allegedly possess is vastly exaggerated. I’ve been teaching two courses at elite universities that attract a large number of returnees. Some are quite good but more are not. Their language skills are limited because they attended schools for expat Japanese 日本人学校 and had little or no interaction with local people. Further, the idea that kids who have spent some part of their elementary, middle or high school years in a foreign country know that country in a significant way is preposterous. Accepting this claim would mean that every American school kid has a special understanding of the US or every Japanese school kid has a special understanding of Japan. Moreover, while some returnees may have problems, when I’ve asked my students about this, none have reported anything serious. If anything most of the problems are those that occur when kids change schools within a country, especially into a different dialect area as in shifting from Tokyo to Osaka or London to Glasgow. Also, because returnees tend to belong to relatively affluent families, their experience in foreign countries tends to be heavily mediated by their class position.

  • Mark Makino

    First, authors cannot simply redefine an already well-understood term for the purposes of a short article, not that this author did that. Second, you are making the same mistake as the author in assuming that students born in Japan start with Japanese culture pre-programmed into their brains and then forget it when living abroad. As I argued above, it is often the case that upon “returning” to Japan they have to learn to fit in with their supposedly “native” culture for the first time. A kid who moves to South Dakota in preschool and comes back in the 3rd grade doesn’t “relearn” how to be an elementary schooler in Japan.

  • Gordon Graham

    I disagree. I coach ice hockey in Japan and the Japanese are well aware of the various hockey systems and different cultures of hockey in Canada, Russia, Sweden etc. Also, I have several Japanese friends who are musicians and they are all influenced by British and American music, including Jazz, Blues and Rock. They are a lot more exposed to other cultures and traditions than you’re suggesting.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    There are a number of unfounded assumptions in both the article and comments. I’ve taught hundreds of kikokushijo at the university level over the past ten years. (1) Kikokushijo do not necessarily have any native knowledge of English or any other foreign language if they attended Nihonjin gakko overseas. (2) There are numerous special programs available for kikokushijo. (3) They get preferential admission to elite private universities. (4) I have yet to have a kikokushijo tell me that they were bent out of shape by the experience. (5) Journalistic articles tend to deal with a tiny number of exceptional cases both good and bad. (6) Journalistic articles are written by people who do not actually work with kikokushijo. (7) Kikokushijo almost without exception come from affluent families with the result that one hears more about kikokushijo than their numbers warrant. (8) For Japanese employers, foreign nationals graduating from elite Japanese universities are probably a better bet than kikokushijo because (a) they have full native speaker competency in their own language; (b) they have full native cultural knowledge of their own country; (c) they typically have near native competency in Japanese; (d) they have enough on the ball to get into and graduate from top Japanese universities as outsiders. (9) It is not unusual in my experience for Chinese, Korean, and European students from non-English speaking countries to have better English (and sometimes Japanese) than kikokushijo. (10) The situation of contemporary kikokushijo is quite different from what is was in the late 70s when this amorphous category first attracted attention.

  • GeneralObvious

    I was the one who brought up workplace discrimination, not her. Giving her an out on the ludicrous statement she made stating that, she feels “unsafe” in Japan. To say any western country, as a whole, is safer than Japan is just blatantly untrue.

    I also think Japan is resistant to change, but so is every country in the world. Especially America. I’m from America and I’ll be the first to say that resisting outside influence and forcing your own values onto others is the cornerstone of American culture. Which is exactly what this “kikoku-shijo” is saying that she wants to do.

    Also, There is human trafficking, drug epidemics, gang problems, etc. all over the world. In most areas in America you can’t even walk down the street at night without risking being robbed or raped (and yes, people get away with these crimes, as much as you’d like to pretend only the “Japanese” can). In Japan the rate of occurrence of these crimes is significantly lower. It’s true, it only means that by comparison Japan is safer; but that was the point of this discussion. The original poster made a direct comparison and stated that she feels safer when in a “country with western values.”