Ikuko Sahara, representative of a volunteer group teaching Japanese to foreigners in Tokyo, knows it’s no picnic living in a foreign country without being familiar with the language.
Sahara, 51, has lived in Britain, Norway, Sweden, France and Singapore over the course of 17 years thanks to her husband’s career.
“I know well how tough it is being in an unfamiliar foreign country,” she said. “I hope to help my students by teaching useful words, even if it’s just one conversational phrase and one greeting.”
Volunteer teachers like Sahara are not uncommon in Japan. In fact, they account for more than half the people teaching Japanese to foreigners living in Japan, according to the Cultural Affairs Agency.
While the volunteers are for the most part enthusiastic about teaching students at the community level, the government is reluctant to help them secure venues, which they cite as their biggest problem, and some also face a lack of funds.
The lack of an official license for Japanese-language teachers, meanwhile, is one of the reasons why teachers are mostly volunteers, government officials say.
Sahara’s group, Sakura-kai, was established in 1983 and currently has 18 volunteer teachers ranging in age from their 20s to 70s teaching about 80 students.
During a Sakura-kai class last month in Minato Ward, everyone was singing the sentence, “Denki-wo-kesuto kurakunarimasu (When I turn off the light, it will become dark).”
When a student succeeded in saying “Saka-wo noboruto ousutoraria taishikanga arimasu (When you climb the slope, you will find the Australian Embassy),” his classmates applauded.
After class, students and teachers chatted over tea and snacks. The students were from a number of countries, including China, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia and Australia.
“It is fun to be in Sakura-kai. Teachers are also kind,” said Zheng Hui Qin, a 29- year-old housewife from China.
“As I study, I can converse freely,” said Riadi Achmad, a 27-year-old university student from Indonesia. “I want to continue studying Japanese at Sakura-kai.”
Osamu Murase, a 63-year-old volunteer, also enjoys teaching.
“Although I have no power, no money, I wondered whether I could do something for society and people,” Murase said.
His biggest reward, he added, is when he sees students enjoying his class and smiling.
One way the volunteers help their students is by keeping costs down. While tuition at private language schools is generally expensive, the fees at Sakura-kai are ¥2,000 for twice-weekly beginning and intermediate classes and ¥300 for a weekly conversation class.
Sahara said the volunteers, beyond helping their students learn the language, find it rewarding when they learn Japanese customs through the association’s cultural exchanges.
Securing classrooms, however, is a major roadblock, with the association usually relying on Minato Ward community centers.
But reservations have to be made three months in advance and whether they even get the space comes down to a lottery between multiple applicants, Sahara said.
“Our biggest wish is that venues could be secured anytime with ease,” she said.
Volunteer Masako Ojima, 54, said Sakura-kai is treated by the ward office on an equal footing with dance and other hobby associations.
Sakura-kai is urging the ward to accept that volunteer organizations helping out foreigners should be treated differently than the hobby clubs.
Minato Ward officials say they disseminate information about the volunteer classes to foreigners who want to learn Japanese, but the office has no measures in place to assist volunteer groups financially and no plans to help them secure venues.
“So far, we do not have any direct assistance for these language volunteers,” said Takeshi Kera, a ward official.
“Many groups are having trouble securing venues,” said Mariko Sakai, a 56-year-old member of Aruku-kai, a volunteer group teaching Japanese in Meguro Ward, Tokyo.
Even though the group makes a reservation, it sometimes can’t secure the intended venue due to various restrictions or because other events are being held.
Sakai noted that oftentimes volunteer groups face financial difficulties in trying to operate language classes.
Public bodies should do more to help foreigners learn the language, she said.
According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, nationwide there were 29,190 Japanese-language teachers for foreigners in fiscal 2009, of whom 15,753, or 54 percent, were volunteers. The trend hasn’t changed in a decade. In fiscal 1998, volunteers accounted for 51.6 percent, the agency said.
Agency official Akihiro Kamoshida said the reason there are so many volunteers is because the government doesn’t have an official license system for teachers of Japanese. While there are private institutions that issue teachers certificates, these aren’t really official licenses.
“Since there are no official qualifications for Japanese teachers, anyone can do it,” Kamoshida said.
But he said that because universities and language schools can’t employ them all, many of those who took the trouble to study teaching Japanese as a foreign language end up having to do it on a volunteer basis.
Kamoshida said the central and local governments don’t have any official system for teaching Japanese to foreigners.
However, the agency said it is considering creating a benchmark to gauge Japanese proficiency, drawing up a standard curriculum and textbooks, and collaborating with universities and Japanese-language schools, although a concrete plan has yet to be made.
According to agency officials, the benchmark would be different than the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test conducted by the Japan Foundation and Japan Educational Exchanges and Services.
Meanwhile, the agency is reluctant to help volunteers find places where they can hold classes.
“Although I have heard about that . . . we will probably not cope with each individual case,” agency official Katsuhisa Sagisaka said. “This is not only the problem of the central government but also of local governments and various other bodies.”
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