YOKOHAMA – Brazilian-born Elisa Kemmisaki, 22, is a newly assigned English language teacher at Ushioda Junior High School in Yokohama.
She also helps pupils in the “kokusai kyoshitsu” (international classroom) pursue their study of Japanese and other subjects.
One recent Friday class was filled with restless students. A Brazilian boy spoke relatively fluent Japanese, while a female compatriot stumbled over reading her Japanese textbook.
The girl slipped back into her mother tongue, Portuguese, to ask her young teacher a question. When Kemmisaki replied in Portuguese, the girl smiled.
The students, children of Brazilian workers, are all newcomers to Japan.
Kemmisaki, who obtained Japanese citizenship, could not speak Japanese proficiently when she came to Japan from Brazil at age 9 when her parents immigrated, just like the students struggling at the school to master the language.
She is the perfect person to help these kids since she understands what they are going through, said Toshio Homma, the school’s principal.
She is considered a symbol of Japan’s internationalization.
“Homogeneous Japan is getting more multicultural, even if the pace is not too fast, and a teacher like her represents this phenomenon,” Honma said. “I expect her own experience will help her become a key figure to manage multicultural tutoring.”
But immigrants are still rare among Japan’s teacher ranks. In many cases, volunteers help school staff teach Japanese to pupils from overseas.
Situated in the heart of Yokohama’s industrial zone, the school Kemmisaki works at is on the frontline of a changing Japan, as 10 percent of its students have an overseas tie. Some are offspring of immigrant workers, others descendants of Koreans who came to Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Brazilians of Japanese descent enjoy easier government visa policies that started in 1990. Kemmisaki was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1980 to a Japanese-born father, Kohei, and Brazilian-Japanese mother, Kikuko.
Kohei decided to revisit Japan to see his gravely ill foster father. But the family’s destiny changed when Kohei, an electronics engineer, was hired by Hino Motors Ltd., a truck subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corp., and the family moved to a Tokyo suburb.
It was not an easy experience, but Kemmisaki said what helped her adapt were “first of all, the warmth of the people of Kagoshima Prefecture . . . and volleyball, which helped me make friends . . . plus my late grandfather, who taught to me to be proud to be a Japanese-Brazilian.”
Kemmisaki decided to become a teacher when she was told by the publisher of a newspaper for Brazilians in Japan that nearly half the children of Brazilian immigrants have difficulty in Japanese schools and that she could help them.
She always carries around a tattered Portuguese dictionary, which was used by her grandfather, who emigrated to Brazil in 1936. The dictionary serves as an inspiration, and reminds her that her grandfather must have faced much greater hardships.
“Gradually, I want to increase my commitment to the international classroom,” she said. “I want to help the students whose environment is just like mine.”
Kemmisaki feels individuality should be stressed in Japan’s schools and noted her surprise at the fact that children in Japanese schools must wear uniforms and go on school trips together, unlike in Brazil.
“Every student, whether he or she is born in Japan or outside Japan, has a different character, and that should be further fostered in education,” she said. “I believe that is the key to making the Japanese community a more mature and better one.”
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