A public-private program has been underway in a Shiga Prefecture city to teach Spanish or Portuguese to children of migrants from Latin America working at local manufacturing plants.

The program in Konan, launched in 2013, started after local officials found many children of Latin American migrant workers who attended local Japanese schools were unable to speak their parents’ native languages well.

Classes to teach these languages are held in an old two-story building in a section of the city where many automobile parts and plastic products factories are located.

For the Portuguese language, children are divided into two groups in accordance with fluency. There is another class to teach Spanish.

Reiko Kinoshita, 52, a Japanese-Brazilian who has a teacher’s certificate in Brazil, was teaching 10 early school-year students Portuguese one day this spring.

“What does geleia mean?” she asked the class. A young boy answered “ice!”

Kinoshita said, “Ice is gelo. The answer is jam.”

“In Brazil, I spoke Japanese at home and Portuguese at school and elsewhere outside. I understand the difficulties of the children here,” Kinoshita said after the lesson, recalling her childhood days.

Hanani Kudo, a 13-year-old fourth-generation Japanese-Brazilian and second-year student at a junior high school in Konan, said, “I have more opportunities than before to speak with my mother in Portuguese thanks to the language class.

“I want to become a medical doctor in the future to help people in need in Africa,” she said.

The girl’s mother, Ligia, 42, said, “My daughter told me in Portuguese what I don’t understand, such as what is written in (Japanese) handouts from school.”

The number of Latin American workers in Konan increased in the 1990s but later decreased due to Japan’s economic slump following the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Their number has begun to pick up recently against the backdrop of labor shortages in Japan.

According to the Konan Municipal Government, 1 in every 25 residents in the city is a foreign national. The city’s population was about 54,000 in the 2015 census.

Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, and Peruvians, who use Spanish, form large groups among the overseas-born population in the city.

Language barriers between local foreign residents and their children have caused various problems, including a lack of communication between them, and even truancy in some cases, local officials said.

The city launched the Portuguese and Spanish classes in 2013 and commissioned the project to the Konan International Association, a group promoting exchanges between local Japanese and foreign residents.

“The creation of a place where children feel at home is more necessary than anything,” said Masayoshi Tsurue, 66, secretary-general of the group.

“We hope that Konan can serve as a pioneering case for Japan’s future acceptance of immigrants,” Tsurue said.

Japan, in principle, does not accept immigration for permanent residence. But since the 1990 revision to the immigration law to ease conditions for entry by foreign nationals of Japanese descent, many Japanese-South American workers have come to stay in Japan on a long-term basis — or permanently.

Takashi Notsu, professor of comparative education at the University of Hyogo, praised Konan’s policy.

“Teaching children their parents’ native languages will improve communication between them and their parents, as well as their academic achievements,” said Notsu, who is well versed in education for foreign children.

Noting that there are only a few such public-private projects, Notsu called Konan a “rare case and ideal model.”

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