A shake-up of Japanese-language schools is in the cards as the government tries to lure more foreign students but faces up to the fact that many facilities are poorly run or even corrupt.
According to education ministry officials, most of the problems stem from the fact that oversight of language schools has been handed over to the Justice Ministry, whose primary concern is not learning but immigration administration. Although the education ministry still has some say, oversight of school quality ends up falling between the cracks.
“Increasing the quality of Japanese-language schools is practically a national policy but bureaucracy is getting in the way,” an education ministry official said. “It’s going to be difficult to improve the situation unless some serious wrongdoing surfaces.”
The Justice Ministry plans to mandate more stringent screening of schools, in part by revising ordinances. However, the education ministry is skeptical of whether this will have much impact.
One education ministry official attributes the lack of clear regulations to the fact that Japanese schools are run by a range of institutions including schools, companies and nonprofit organizations. This makes it difficult for them to be overseen by one authority.
The schools used to exhibit a certain level of quality when they were being examined by the privately run Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education, they say. But after the association’s examination process was found to lack transparency during a rare screening of state-funded projects by the Democratic Party of Japan, responsibility for oversight was shifted to the Justice Ministry, which has little experience overseeing schools.
In all, 208,379 foreign students were enrolled at colleges and language schools in Japan as of May 2015.
By country, Chinese topped the list at 94,111, but Vietnamese and Nepalese surged to 38,882 and 16,250, respectively, while South Koreans dropped sharply to fourth place with 15,279 students.
Unlike Chinese students, who have a major advantage studying Japanese because it uses kanji, a Chinese invention, people from countries where the characters aren’t used usually struggle.
“The most difficult thing about Japanese is kanji,” says a 25-year-old Vietnamese student at Intercultural Institute of Japan, a language school in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. “One character has a lot of meaning and many ways to read.”
The student, who had attended a Japanese school in Ho Chi Minh two days a week for six months before coming to Japan, said the language becomes even more difficult when advancing from conversation to reading, adding it would be impossible to keep up if a student came to Japan with no preparation.
Many Japanese companies now operate in Vietnam, where studying the language is more popular than ever. Some families have been known to sell their house to fund their children’s study in Japan.
A Nepalese student who used to study in Fukuoka at a language school that was nailed for illegal job placements said students often spend their free hours working to pay the school fees.
“Many students fell asleep during class because they worked too hard,” the student said. “It was impossible to make a living only by working 28 hours a week as legally permitted.”
The school advised students to open multiple bank accounts to receive their wages to avoid trouble from the Immigration Bureau.
The Japanese Language School Association says the number of schools rose sharply from 460 in fiscal 2012 to 549 in fiscal 2015. Critics say many of them are more about making money than teaching the language.
“The number is increasing but the quality is poor,” an industry insider said.
Since many students come to Japan with aspirations to study its culture and technology, the spread of poor or corrupt language schools might discourage many from coming in the first place.
“Language schools are the first place foreign students go when they come to Japan. If they get a bad impression, it will eventually lead to the decline in foreign students coming to Japan,” said an owner of a Japanese-language school who asked to rename anonymous.
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