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For Yoshikazu Kenjo, those who attended his junior high evening classes were not only his students but also his teachers.

“Night junior high schools have accepted those who could not receive an education at regular school age for various reasons,” he said.

“Mirroring society, we had war-displaced Japanese from China, and Afghan refugees attended classes after the outbreak of the U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan,” he said.

After teaching at a junior high night school for 42 years, Kenjo, 65, retired in April. Looking back, he said, “My students were living witnesses of the times. They showed me the footsteps of this society, and I often thought the students, not me, were the teachers in a classroom.”

There were 35 public junior high night schools nationwide as of May last year, accommodating some 3,000 students, according to the education ministry. Nearly 50 percent of the students were believed to be over 60.

“Many students have burdens,” Kenjo said, “and I could not ignore their problems when the students brought them into the classroom.”

Wanting to learn about the lives of his students during the day, he visited their workplaces and sometimes helped them out in order to cover their overtime and enable them to get to class on time.

“I experienced dozens of jobs, such as washing dishes at a hospital and working as a press operator,” he said. “None were easy.”

Since retiring, Kenjo, together with other retired teachers and volunteers, has participated in a private group that provides reading, writing and arithmetic lessons three days a week to people who never had the opportunity to pursue such studies.

Some 20 students at the lesson group — Empitsu-no-Kai (Pencil Association) — include a war-displaced Japanese, ethnic Koreans, a refugee applicant from the Middle East and a physically disabled person. They range in age from 19 to 84.

As he stood behind the podium at the front of the classroom, which was set up at a vacant school building in Tokyo, Kenjo said he sees teaching at Empitsu-no-Kai an extension of teaching at junior high night school, because it serves a variety of people.

Sin Gyong Ryol, 83, a Korean resident of Tokyo, was in her late 70s when she was finally able to attend evening classes. Having now completed her formal education, she attends Empitsu-no-Kai.

“I came to Japan from Korea 70 years ago at the age of 14 with my parents, and I could not go to school as I had to work since that time to support my family,” she said.

“But now I understand what advertising displays say when I walk around town. It’s fun,” she added, using a magnifying glass to read her text.

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