Japanese-language education is becoming more important for children of foreign residents in Japan at a time when the government is planning to introduce a new visa system to increase the number of foreign workers.
Elementary and junior high schools accept children with almost no conditions regardless of nationality. When it comes to high school education, however, they must pass entrance exams, including those on the Japanese language. In many cases, foreign students give up on advancing to high school because of the language barrier.
Language education for foreign students is often inadequate and depends on nonprofit organizations and volunteer teachers.
In one of its classes, the nonprofit Multicultural Center Tokyo is currently teaching Japanese to 10 students aged 15 and older from China, the Philippines and Nepal.
A boy from China initially attended a night junior high school but left because he was uncomfortable with the teaching methods. After attending a Japanese-language school at the center, the boy, 17, now goes to high school and aims to someday find a job in Japan.
Weng Yuxiang, a 25-year-old student at Sophia University in Tokyo, learned Japanese at the center and now serves as an intern there. “Children have no other choice but to depend on their parents,” he said. “When I came to Japan, I felt anxious because I didn’t know the Japanese entrance examination system.”
“Entry into high school is very important for expanding options” for foreign children who will live in Japan for many years, said Noriko Hazeki, representative of the center.
“We want to offer as many opportunities as possible for them to be in touch with Japanese society,” she said, stressing the value of Japanese-language education at the center.
There were 2.2 million foreign residents in Japan at the end of 2017, excluding permanent residents with special status, an all-time high and up around 580,000 from five years earlier, according to the Justice Ministry.
The number of children who come to Japan with their parents has been on the rise. The education ministry reported that 34,335 foreign children needed Japanese-language education as of May 2016.
But less than 70 percent of foreign children of elementary and junior high school age attend public schools, according the education ministry. Some children have lived in Japan for more than 10 years without acquiring adequate Japanese-language proficiency.
Public educational institutions that accept foreign children are in short supply, as are Japanese-language teachers.
Although some elementary and junior high schools teach Japanese to foreign students separately from regular classes, the shortage of opportunities to learn the language remains serious.
As of November 2017, there were only 28 NPOs across Japan providing Japanese-language education to foreign students. Some children have to travel more than one hour each way to attend classes.
Japan “urgently” needs to address the challenge of teaching Japanese to foreign children now that the population of non-Japanese has increased sharply, Hazeki said. “Japanese-language education has a very long way to catch up (with actual needs).”