YOKOHAMA - Yokohama has been a cultural intersection between Japanese, foreign residents and visitors from overseas ever since opening its port to international trade in 1859, leading what was once a sleepy fishing village to become home to one of the first foreign communities in the country and develop into a bustling city of nearly 4 million.
However, even in a city that has historically been so foreigner-friendly and was home to 9,129 foreign-born and multiethnic students last year, it’s quite rare to find a public school like Minami Yoshida Elementary School, where 57 percent of the students have foreign roots.
With its unique events and local volunteer language assistants, the school has seen the number of foreign students surge by about 20 percentage points in the past seven years.
Its popularity among foreign residents lies in the multicultural events and language lectures, many of which are hosted by school principal Tetsuo Fujimoto, whose motto is, “Cherish your own identity, but speak Japanese in class.”
Located just over 2 km west of Chinatown in Minami Ward, the school’s student body of 748 now has 430 multiethnic Japanese and non-Japanese pupils hailing from 16 countries. Of those students, about 70 percent have at least one Chinese parent. The school’s ratio of students with foreign roots is the highest among all municipal elementary schools in the city, according to a Yokohama official.
To enhance mutual understanding among students of different nationalities, the school has been hosting events, including My World Lunch, where meals from a variety of international cuisines are served.
Another unique event, held on July 13, was a dumpling party where Chinese parents cooked their take on the dish alongside Japanese parents and their children. The event drew more than 100 people and was organized by Zhao Chunliang, a 37-year-old Chinese parent and a member of the school’s parent-teacher association.
Zhao, whose 8-year-old daughter is in the second grade, also served as an interpreter for Japanese and Chinese participants whenever it was necessary for teachers and parents to give instructions or request information.
“There are so many Chinese parents who are afraid of participating in school events due to their poor Japanese skills. I wanted to do something for them, but I also wanted to show my appreciation to the school, which takes good care of my kid,” Zhao said.
Fujimoto, who came up with the idea for a dumpling party, emphasized the importance of foreign parents taking charge in the organization of the event.
“The last time we held a dumpling party, with Japanese parents in charge, there weren’t as many foreign parents participating and I also received some complaints that Japanese parents were overwhelmed in putting it together,” Fujimoto said. “In order to prevent the event from becoming a one-off, it is crucial to have foreign parents like Zhao involved in planning the event and translating messages into Chinese.”
The school had a very different atmosphere when Fujimoto took over as principal seven years ago, when non-Japanese or multiethnic pupils accounted for 34 percent of the student population.
The school was “engulfed by a dark melancholy atmosphere,” filled with kids who could barely communicate in Japanese, Fujimoto said.
“There was a complete separation between Japanese and foreign students, and they seldom attempted to communicate with each other,” Fujimoto added. “There were constant fights and arguments, and teachers were overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of kids who could barely speak Japanese.”
The school’s biggest challenge remains issues stemming from language barriers.
In Yokohama, where more than 1,600 pupils are said to need Japanese-language assistance, schools with more than five students with low levels of Japanese proficiency are required to have a language assistance class called an “international class,” in which pupils learn Japanese while their peers take classes that require high Japanese skills, such as literature and sociology.
A trained language teacher is normally sent to each school with five foreign students or more, while two teachers are dispatched to schools with more than 20 foreign pupils.
“However, two teachers were not enough for Minami Yoshida, which had more than 80 pupils who needed language assistance back then,” said Fujimoto.
The principal asked the board of education for more teachers and now, with eight instructors available for international classes, the school is capable of holding lessons across three different Japanese proficiency levels — beginner, intermediate and advanced.
Fujimoto calls it a dream come true.
Wang Qinghong, the language coordinator at Tabunka Kyosei Lounge (Multicultural Co-existence Lounge) in Yokohama, an organization that provides volunteer translators to the school, knows how difficult it can be to determine each child’s level of proficiency in Japanese.
“Almost every month, new foreign students join the school, and it’s almost impossible for teachers to determine each kid’s Japanese-language proficiency,” Wang said. “What is even worse is that the kids in their first- or second-grade classes are not even fully fluent in their native languages.”
Because of this, the school also holds one-hour lectures in Chinese, Korean and English after school every Wednesday in order to prevent foreign students from being “double-limited,” or lacking fluency in both Japanese and their native language.
The classes, which were previously met with criticism for giving language lessons at a public school only to foreign kids, are now open to Japanese students who want to learn a foreign tongue.
“I tell my students, ‘Keep your mother tongue, but speak Japanese in class.’ As long as they live and work in Japan, they need to speak Japanese. However, since they might go back to their own countries eventually, they also should maintain their proficiency in their mother tongues,” Fujimoto said.
Among Yokohama’s 18 wards, Minami has 1,220 elementary and junior high school students with at least one parent who is non-Japanese — the second most in the city after the 1,262 students in Tsurumi Ward.
Of the ward’s 942 foreign-born and multiethnic elementary school kids, about 45 percent attend Minami Yoshida. To be eligible to attend the school, children have to live within a certain district that covers a portion of both Naka and Minami wards. Yet with 30 or more new foreign students entering the school each year on average, the institution is becoming overwhelmed. The school is now running out of classroom space and work is underway to set up new classrooms.
“There are actually schools with a lot of vacancies in other districts,” Fujimoto said. “But many foreign kids are determined to come to Minami Yoshida.”
Hiroyuki Kimura, assistant director at the Yokohama Association For International Communications and Exchanges, attributes the popularity of the school among foreign families to lower rent in the area compared with other districts, easy access to Chinatown and the school’s multicultural events.
“The cost of living is also cheap, and I heard that foreign people who have heard about Minami Yoshida by word-of-mouth move in one after another,” Kimura said.
Tabunka Kyosei Lounge’s Wang, who works with Kimura, said foreign children at Minami Yoshida are treated well, but that much more attention should be paid to foreign students that are a small minority at their schools.
According to a 2014 study by the education ministry, among the 73,289 foreign students who attended public elementary, junior high and high schools, about 40 percent were said to be in need of Japanese-language assistance. That figure had increased 1 ½ times since 2004.
The mother tongues of such students included Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, Spanish, Vietnamese, English and Korean.
Of the 6,864 schools with non-Japanese students who needed assistance with the language, only seven had more than 100 such pupils while about 76 percent of the schools had four or fewer. The data showed non-Japanese students were concentrated in certain areas.
“I have been engaged in trial and error for seven years at this school, and things are finally becoming functional, but there are still a lot of obstacles to overcome. Japan will soon be accepting more foreign workers, so soon my school won’t be anything special anymore,” Fujimoto said. “I’m hoping that my school will be a good model.”