Takashi Kinoshita, 73, lived most of his adulthood with a secret that until recently he wouldn’t dare divulge even to his children: he was nearly illiterate.
As a child, Kinoshita grew up at a time when Japan was still in the grip of postwar poverty. He gave up compulsory education and started looking for work at age 13. Even as the nation went on to become an economic superpower, the Osaka-based steelworker remained cut off from mainstream society. His work, he said, seldom required any writing.
“I was able to read to some extent. But I could barely write,” said Kinoshita, who is now retired. “So every time I sensed somebody was about to ask me to write something, I’d duck out to spare myself embarrassment.”
It wasn’t until Kinoshita turned 68 that he finally decided to overcome his inability to write and, as he put it, “restore my lost self.”
His solution was to become a student again.
And so began Kinoshita’s schooling at Moriguchi No. 3 junior high school in Osaka Prefecture — one of 31 junior high schools nationwide that operate special evening classes catering to late teens or adults who for one reason or another quit their education prematurely.
Dating from the late 1940s, evening classes such as those operated by the Moriguchi school have provided important opportunities to those who failed to complete mandatory education by the age of 15. The students are considered simply as being over-age, meaning older than 15. Graduates get that valuable ticket: a junior high school diploma.
The evening classes, called “yakan chugaku” (night junior high school), used to cater mainly to victims of postwar poverty like Kinoshita. But nowadays nearly 80 percent of their students are foreigners who missed out on childhood education before coming to Japan. Many of the foreigners are refugees and so-called war orphans from China who resettled in Japan. Others are the wives and children of foreigners working in Japan.
In a landmark shift in policy, the government recently began to take notice of those who do not fit the traditional student profile and pledged to make night schooling more readily available to them. While experts who have long assisted these people welcome the government’s move, they say further steps are needed.
A census conducted in 2010 found that about 128,000 people nationwide had not finished elementary school. As of May 1 this year, only 1,879 students were enrolled in night school, education ministry figures show. Of those students, more than three-quarters were foreigners.
Speaking in the Diet in May, education minister Hakubun Shimomura said night school should be expanded to have “at least one school in each prefecture.” At the moment, classes are available at only 31 schools in eight prefectures nationwide, including Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima.
As a first step, his ministry is now seeking ¥44 million for fiscal 2015 to encourage more municipalities to offer night classes and to campaign for greater public awareness of the problem. The figure represents more than a tenfold increase compared to what the ministry earmarked for such night classes this year.
“The tide is finally turning for the better,” said Yasutaka Sekimoto, a retired teacher who devoted his entire 35-year career to teaching Japanese language to foreigners at night schools in Tokyo. “Of course it’s more than welcome.”
The government’s about-face, he said, is largely the result of strenuous lobbying in recent years by anti-poverty activists and teachers like him who have been pushing to increase nontraditional students’ access to education.
Sekimoto’s view is echoed by Ruri Sawai, a music teacher at Bunka Junior High School in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. The school is one of eight junior highs in the capital that run night classes.
“Lots of folks in Saitama Prefecture, for example, travel all the way across to Tokyo to (attend night classes) because Saitama has no such facilities,” she said, adding that she fully supports the proposed budget increase.
The Bunka school runs both daytime and nighttime classes. The latter typically begin at 5:30 p.m., and about 80 percent of the students are Chinese. As of May 1, there were 55 evening-class students. They range in age from 15 to 74 and vary in terms of how well they can speak Japanese.
On a recent visit, one of the Chinese students, Dong Xiao Mong, said with joy that at age 49, she feels like a teenager again.
Mong said that as an adolescent in China, she dropped out of compulsory education for “financial reasons.” As if to make up for lost time, Mong now studies diligently, has a great attendance record and participates in club activities.
“Even now, I sometimes wish I could have completed my education in China,” said Mong, whose husband runs a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo.
“I’m truly enjoying my time here,” she added, referring to her 20 months at Bunka school. “It is the most fulfilling time I’ve ever had in Japan.”
Tomoko Ioka, who teaches Japanese classes at the Bunka school, said that although their reasons for studying vary, the night students are by and large highly motivated. Many of the younger students are even trying to enter higher education.
But the harsh reality is, even after attending school, few foreign students reach full proficiency in the language. They struggle to compete with their peers in high school entrance exams, she said.
“Graduating here doesn’t necessarily pave your way to higher education,” Ioka said.
“I think the biggest reason for the existence of this school is to assure that the over-age foreign students, both teens and adults, are not alone, and that they have somewhere (in Japanese society) to feel accepted.”
Another Chinese student, a 16-year-old girl, echoed Ioka’s view. She said she was miserable during her first two months in Japan. Her father, a cook with whom she arrived, was always away at work and there was nobody else at home. But her perspective changed after she enrolled in the school.
“With all the friends and good teachers I have, this is the only place for me to be,” she said.
Although certainly a positive experience for many foreigners, the night school system still has many more hurdles to clear, retiree Sekimoto pointed out.
For one thing, he said, evening students are given the same set of textbooks as their daytime counterparts. But many of them have such limited Japanese skills that standard textbooks are of no use to them.
Another challenge has to do with the students’ limited access to what is called school expense subsidies, which are doled out by municipalities to help financially strapped families cover the cost of school trips, lunches, and activities such as extracurricular pursuits, Sekimoto said.
Since the School Education Act technically singles out those under age 15 as the legitimate beneficiaries of such subsidies, he said, some municipalities, particularly those on the outskirts of Tokyo or outside the city, disqualify nontraditional students from such funds. But the situation in central Tokyo has greatly improved, with all wards now voluntarily granting students the aid regardless of age.
Six years into his study at Osaka’s Moriguchi school, Kinoshita said he has no difficulty writing now. At 73, he jokes that he knows his days are numbered, and that he stands a slim chance of advancing to higher education after graduating from the Osaka school.
“If I was much younger and healthier, I definitely would have fancied going to high school,” he said.
“But me learning in the evening classes is not about pursuing higher education. It’s about being able to write my own name, write my home address. In other words, expressing myself. I just want to live my life the way I want.”