National

Number of foreign students at public schools who lack Japanese language skills hits record high

by Reiji Yoshida and Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writers

The number of non-Japanese children at public schools who are lacking in Japanese language skills and who need remedial lessons hit a record 34,335 as of May last year, the latest survey by the education ministry showed Tuesday.

The number, up 17.6 percent from the previous biennial survey conducted in 2014, accounted for 42.9 percent of the 80,119 non-Japanese children at public elementary schools, high schools and other public facilities across the country, according to the survey.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology conducted the survey covering about 35,000 public schools. The survey looks at children who cannot hold simple daily conversations in Japanese and/or those who have difficulty learning at school due to poor secondary language skills.

Of the 34,335 children, 76.9 percent take additional Japanese language lessons, down 6 points from the previous survey.

“We have taken various measures, such as training teachers and allocating Japanese-language lecturers at schools. But the number of (foreign) children is growing so fast that we have been unable to catch up with it,” Yasuhiro Obata, head of at the International Education Division of the ministry, said in a phone interview with The Japan Times.

Of the many languages spoken by students from overseas, Portuguese tops the list with 8,779 children, followed by Chinese with 8,204, Filipino at 6,283, Spanish at 3,600, Vietnamese at 1,515 and English at 982, the survey showed.

By prefecture, Aichi tops the list with 7,277 non-Japanese children with poor Japanese skills, followed by Kanagawa at 3,947, Tokyo at 2,932, Shizuoka at 2,673 and Osaka at 2,275.

During the 1990s, Japan experienced a major labor shortage whereby it eased working visa conditions for Japanese-Brazilians. This explains why many Portuguese-speaking people and their children now live in Japan.

Many worked at manufacturing plants in Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures.

The survey also found 9,612 children who hold Japanese citizenship but have poor Japanese skills, needing remedial language instruction.

Among most of those holding Japanese citizenship but who were having difficulty speaking the language, either one or both parents are non-Japanese or they had lived overseas and recently moved back to Japan.

According to the survey, 2,491 schools said they could not offer language lessons for such children because they do not have Japanese-language teachers.

Obata also noted that the survey showed an imbalance in the number of children between urban and rural areas.

Schools in areas like Aichi, Kanagawa, Shizuoka, Osaka, Mie, Tokyo and Saitama have a large number of foreign children with poor Japanese skills, while in many other areas, each school has only one or two such children, Obata said.

“We cannot deal with this problem in a uniform manner nationwide,” he said.

In some areas with many foreign students, schools need assistance from the local community to teach children Japanese, he said.

Noriko Hazeki, head of the nonprofit organization Multicultural Center Tokyo, said many public schools still lack the resources to support children who can not speak, read or write Japanese.

Some people have visited the center to seek help after a public school rejected their child because of poor Japanese language skills. They often ask parents to have the child acquire basic Japanese skills first, she said.

“There is this reality that many children could not enter an elementary or junior high school” if they can’t speak Japanese, Hazeki said. “That’s because those schools lack systems to support those children who can’t understand Japanese.”

Such children often have no choice but to learn basic Japanese at language schools or in classes provided by nonprofit groups like the center before entering a public school, Hazeki said.

“Of course, some schools provide really good support. But as a whole, (Japan) does not have sufficient support systems” for non-Japanese children, Hazeki said.

“There are a lot of language schools in Japan for international students, but Japan does not have a well-established system to train people who can teach Japanese to those elementary and junior high school children,” Hazeki said. “It’s important to establish such a system and provide more professional teachers.”

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