HAMAMATSU, Shizuoka Pref. - Monica Omura was at a loss when her son, Masashi, 7, began ignoring her. It’s not that he became rebellious. He just couldn’t understand what his mother said to him in Portuguese — their native language.
“I got freaked out when I realized he doesn’t understand our language,” the 25-year-old Omura said. The second-generation Japanese-Brazilian speaks little Japanese.
The two came to Japan in 2003. She has since been working at factories where most of her coworkers are Brazilian and Japanese proficiency is not a requirement. As a single parent, she has little time to learn the language either.
Her son, however, has been immersed in a Japanese-speaking environment. Studying in a public school with Japanese classmates, he has had few opportunities to attain Portuguese proficiency to the level where he can express his feelings.
When Omura scolds the boy, he can tell from her expression she is angry but doesn’t understand why.
Such a linguistic gap between parents and children with little knowledge of Portuguese has been plaguing the Japanese-Brazilian community, despite a common belief that Brazilian children’s inability in Japanese at public school and the resultant poor academic performances are their biggest headache.
In hopes of developing a common language with her son, Omura enrolled him in a weekly yearlong Portuguese class run by the city of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, which is home to numerous factories employing foreign workers of Japanese descent.
The city launched the class centering on Portuguese writing and reading in 2007 amid mounting requests by Japanese-Brazilian parents who were concerned about similar communication problems with their children and wanted to see their language and cultural values passed on, according to Keiko Tanaka, director general of the city’s support office for foreign children education.
“If the kids remain illiterate in Portuguese, the language will unlikely be their tool of expression or thought,” Tanaka said.
More than 100 children were enrolled for the class this year.
Masami Matsumoto, director general of Colegio Mundo de Alegria, a Hamamatsu-based private school for children from Brazil and Peru, has seen a number of such Brazilian children transfer in from public schools.
“They have lost Portuguese skills and barely understand abstract concepts in the language,” she said. “It’s hard for them to express nuances in their feelings in Portuguese.”
Some educators point to the need for the parents to learn Japanese. But even if the parents speak Japanese fluently, Portuguese is still necessary for their children.
“Portuguese will help them learn about their ancestors and develop their identities as Brazilians,” said Angelo Ishi, a Japanese-Brazilian associate professor of social science at Tokyo’s Musashi University. “Without the language, they will grow up being unaware of problems facing their own community.”
Akira Kojima, an associate professor of psychology and education at Wako University in Tokyo, said learning a mother tongue is psychologically important.
“When immigrant kids face challenges at public school due to their ethnicity, their mother tongues will play a significant role in keeping their self-esteem and sharing their feelings with compatriots going through similar situations,” he said.
One example is Fernanda Agata, a 10-year-old Brazilian born in Japan. She recently transferred to Colegio Mundo de Alegria from a public school “because I hated some classmates calling me names and I want to learn Portuguese and broaden my future choices,” she said.
“Research has shown that respect for one’s language and culture will lead to positive identity formation and positive learning experiences,” said Keita Takayama, an assistant education professor at the University of New England in Australia, a nation known for its advanced multicultural policy.
Japan’s public education curriculum is not designed to accept children from different cultures, experts say.
As an original system to help foreign children overcome linguistic handicaps and improve their academic abilities, Hamamatsu, which hosts Japan’s largest Japanese-Brazilian community, is sending bilingual teacher aides to schools in areas where foreign families are concentrated.
Mikiko Nairu Saito, an aide at Mizuho Elementary School in Hamamatsu, helps in math classes by translating questions into Portuguese for children who cannot read Japanese or understand technical terms.
One of the kids there is a 12-year-old Brazilian who speaks little Japanese but is unable to read Portuguese. “It’s hard to keep up with class and I may transfer to a Brazilian school after finishing the sixth grade,” the girl said.
According to Saito, there is a significant number of these “semi-lingual” children in public schools who have not attained appropriate levels in either Portuguese or Japanese.
“These kids should focus on Portuguese acquisition first and improve their intellectual capacities in the language to avoid falling behind in both,” Matsumoto said. “The language focus should be shifted to Japanese over generations.” Students at her school are also required to take Japanese lessons daily.
Brazilians of Japanese ancestry began moving here in large numbers after an amendment to the immigration law in 1990 allowed Japanese descendants overseas to enter on resident visas and work with no limitations. The law was revised to make up for a labor shortage during the go-go days of the 1980s bubble economy.
A number of Brazilians have chosen to settle in Japan instead of returning home with tidy nest eggs. In fact, nearly 95,000 of the 320,000 or so Japanese-Brazilian residents in Japan held permanent visas as of the end of last year.
Nevertheless, Takayama said the decision to stay or go will hinge on economic conditions and immigration policies, and that it is important to keep the possibility of returning to Brazil in mind.
Monica Omura’s son, Masashi, is among those hoping to stay. “I want to become an athlete in Japan,” he said.
Reflecting his reluctance to go to Brazil, he is unable to stay focused on his Portuguese-language lessons.
Motivating immigrant children to learn their languages starts with the environment, Takayama said.
“Teachers, schools, the communities and the country as a whole should create an environment in which cultural and linguistic diversity is seen as a rich resource enhancing the quality of schooling and life in general.”
A year and a half after Omura’s son joined the class, “Our conversation is gradually getting back to normal,” she said.