Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, has a population exceeding 800,000, including some 30,000 foreigners, many of them involved in the manufacturing industry.
But unlike other large commercial centers, the city 260 km southwest of Tokyo is patchwork whose Japanese and foreign communities live largely separate from one another.
That separation makes it hard for foreign children to integrate into the society. Only about half the children of foreign workers attend high school, raising the specter of an alienated and undereducated underclass taking root in the city.
“There are many Brazilian supermarkets and schools (in Hamamatsu), but Japanese living there don’t know that they exist,” said Mitsue Inoue, chairwoman of Hamamatsu NPO Network Center, which organizes activities to encourage foreign kids to go to school, and to foster better communication between Japanese and foreign students.
According to the center, the number of foreigners residing in Hamamatsu has grown, particularly since 1990 when immigration law was amended to allow foreigners of Japanese descent to work in the country.
Japanese-Brazilians make up the largest share of the foreign community in Hamamatsu, with foreigners accounting for 4 percent of the city’s total population, more than double the national average. Many are temporary workers at factories owned by Honda Motor Co., Suzuki Motor Corp. and Yamaha Motor Co.
The number of Hamamatsu’s foreign children has surged as well. Many of them drop out of school at an early age because they lack the Japanese language skills they need to function in the classroom.
There are Brazilian schools, but they aren’t a realistic option for many parents, particularly those who have lost their jobs in the economic slowdown. Brazilian schools charge tuition of ¥30,000 to ¥40,000 a month.
“After the Lehman shock, half of the foreign children stopped going to school. And it wasn’t because they went back to their home country,” said Meri Kobayashi, former chairwoman of the center.
“Some parents tell their children to look after their younger sisters or brothers (instead of going to school). The kids cannot learn their mother tongue because the parents are working. They don’t learn Japanese, either,” said Kobayashi. “They cannot even plan for the future after junior high school.”
The center is trying to change that. It started by looking for children of factory workers who have made it into high school to serve as role models and community leaders for their younger peers.
The center hosts discussions, asking those students to talk about their experiences in high school.
“Those kids who enrolled in high school went through tough times, but they usually don’t have a chance to talk about it,” Kobayashi said.
“After meeting other students, they know they’re not the only ones, and they are also motivated to become a supporter” of other kids, said Kobayashi, adding many junior high school students who have taken part in the discussions are greatly encouraged to study harder.
Inoue said the meetings also have a great impact on parents’ views of education.
A 22-year-old Brazilian man talked about his experience working as a waiter at a restaurant after graduating from junior high school. He wanted to keep studying but his parents wouldn’t let him go to school, Inoue said.
He quit his job so he could enter a Japanese language school and later passed a proficiency test. He enrolled in an evening high school after his parents moved back to Brazil.
“The parents had to come to terms with what their children really hoped to do. They were tearful after hearing his story,” Inoue said.
While many foreign students and parents are inspired by these pep talks, the prefecture has been slow to respond, said members of the center.
But that is changing, thanks to high school teachers who have started attending and spread the word about the important work going on.
“Last year, the Shizuoka Prefectural Government asked to cosponsor the meetings for the first time,” said Inoue. The board of education was particularly impressed by the group’s efforts to translate its handbooks into five languages.
Apart from the meetings, the center also sponsors community art projects that involve both Japanese and foreign students. Last month, it received the Global Citizenship Award from the Japan Foundation, an annual award for NPOs that contribute to development of local communities.
“We pursue community art because it makes it easy to build an equal relationship between Japanese and foreigners,” Kobayashi said.
According to members of the center, the best way to inspire foreign youth is to get young community leaders involved.
“The Brazilian student told other teenagers that based on his experience, studying is important and education is key to a better future,” Inoue said. “That’s a lot more persuasive than being told to study by a Japanese staff” member.