In navigating their way through Japan’s often complex and confusing society, a group of Filipino international students formulated a road map for those who might choose to follow their path and want to spread the word.

Through their activities at school and elsewhere, in connection with a nonprofit group, the students formulated a plan to tackle a plethora of uniquely Japanese challenges.

And their efforts have come at just the right time, as the country’s shifting demographics, aging populace and declining birthrate have led to a shift in Japan’s traditionally strict stance on immigration.

Filipinos Paolo Punzalan, 17, Akane Aragon, 18, and Juria Sone, 18, participated in the One World program — a forum at Hitotsubashi High School in Tokyo. The program engages foreign and Japanese students in intercultural projects and workshops.

The part-time high school runs it jointly with a nonprofit organization named kuriya and college researchers.

“We felt there was a real need for community-building within the school, so as a form of after-school activity, together with the high school teachers, college researchers and our nonprofit organization, we developed the program,” kuriya founder Shuko Ebihara, 37, said in a recent interview.

The program aims to combat the high dropout rate among international students struggling with feelings of isolation, she said. The school makes available half-day courses featuring Japanese lessons and regular classes with Japanese students.

Along with One World, the trio, who each attended Hitostubashi High, where about one student in eight is foreign, also participate in an outside internship program where they can learn life skills, earn a small amount of “scholarship money” and meet people from different walks of life and various cultures.

Recently, they worked together for three months on a slide presentation in which they came up with ways to resolve four problems: learning Japanese, making Japanese friends, finding part-time jobs and planning for the future.

They plan to use their presentation as a guide for other international students who arrive in Japan.

“It’s important to have a medium that shows what’s necessary to survive in Japanese society” and that can be understood by foreigners, Ebihara said.

“How do we tackle issues so we can get a result? It is difficult to learn about getting scholarships, for example, but after learning about them it can be something that can be passed on to the enrolling foreign students,” she said.

In summarizing the solutions to the four problems, Punzalan said in his presentation, delivered entirely in Japanese, that taking responsibility is key.

“Whether we are talking about studying Japanese, making friends, getting a part-time job or determining our future path, it all boils down to taking responsibility for ourselves. It’s our life.”

Added Aragon, “We are in a foreign country, so it isn’t easy, but facing the challenge is what is important.”

For example, in the presentation, Punzalan talked about studying more than 10 kanji a day and aiming to reach the N2 level on the Japanese Language Proficiency exam this year.

“Unless you know how to read and write Japanese it will be difficult to map out a future here,” said Punzalan, who arrived in Japan two years ago with his family.

By proactively speaking with Japanese students — even in a limited capacity — with similar hobbies, actively taking part in Japanese classes and joining after-school clubs, friendships can blossom, said Punzalan, who this year was named captain of the school basketball team.

In Punzalan’s case, he said even though he wishes to attend university after graduating next year, for the time being at least, because of his family’s financial situation, he has no choice but to work. He thus needs to change his residence status using the new visa system launched in April to one that puts no limits on him working full-time.

Aragon, who arrived in 2016 and is still struggling to learn the language, said she eventually plans to look for a job so she can remain in the country after graduation “to make a life here.”

Sone, who came to Japan with her family five years ago and enrolled in college in April, said while the presentation is “a good start” it needs to address more issues international students face. “But, all in all, I think that what we have made will serve as a reminder, comfort and help for the next batch of youth or adult immigrants,” she said.

“What impressed me was how they clearly articulated the need to not only learn Japanese, but make friends, build a community, a career, a life. … Now we are thinking about how we can distribute the presentation in orientations to the newly enrolling international high school students,” Ebihara said.

According to data provided by Tokyo’s 23 wards, on the back of a recent rise in international students and foreign technical interns, nearly 1 in 8 adults who came of age by April 1 was foreign-born. Particularly in bustling Shinjuku Ward, almost half of those who turned 20 were foreigners.

A fiscal 2016 education ministry survey on the situation of international students who need Japanese lessons found that those in need of assistance jumped 17.6 percent to 34,335, up 5,137 from the previous study.

Ebihara said that due in part to policy advocacy by the trio, the ministry researched dropout rates and found the rate for international students stood at 9.61 percent in the 2017 academic year — over seven times the national average of 1.27 percent for public high school students in 2016.

Following its report on high school dropout rates — which also revealed that foreign students who graduate are nine times as likely to work part-time jobs — kuriya proposed a comprehensive network be created inside and outside of schools to better support international students.

As a result, the education ministry has set aside a budget of ¥100 million ($897,000) in cooperation with local companies and NPOs to provide career advice for international high school students.

Kuriya targets high school students, college students and adults aged 16 to 26 from various countries. It has seen about 60 high school students and 100 college exchange students participate in the One World program since 2015.

“One World had a great impact on the students, especially immigrant students,” said Tsukuba University assistant professor Tomoko Tokunaga. “Though part-time high schools have high dropout rates, most students who were involved in the club’s activities graduated from high school, some secured regular employment and a few entered university.”

Kuriya also organizes one-time workshops in art, photography, videography, among other media in a program that has seen 300 foreign youth participants, including some from the Philippines, Nepal, China, Myanmar, Brazil and Japan, over 10 years.

Sameeka Sherchan, 21, an aspiring writer from Nepal who arrived in the country with her mother and sister when she was 15, got involved in the internship programs two years ago.

“I started to write about the people I met in (the activities). I then realized I was capable of doing something myself. Doing something I enjoy,” Sherchan said. “When I wrote about them it was like writing about the future of the youth in Japan.”

The Filipino trio have begun to tap their latent potential, including their linguistic talents, as Japan increasingly finds itself dependent on foreign people to sustain its future. They have found strength in cultural diversity.

“The activities have become a source of empowerment for students who are isolated to encourage and enliven each other,” said Hitotsubashi High School teacher Hitoshi Tsunoda. “Through their exchanges with college students and others, while using English, Japanese and other languages, it opens a path to their future.”

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