Amid a steady rise in the number of foreign residents, the Diet on Friday unanimously enacted a law that spells out for the first time the government’s responsibility for systematically promoting Japanese-language education.

Experts largely hailed the legislation as a step forward in a country where the absence of legal and fiscal backing has long dissuaded municipalities from taking active steps to teach the language to foreign residents.

The law, however, is fundamentally philosophical, and avoids mapping out specific measures that should be taken by the government. Its effectiveness will also likely hinge on how much funding it receives.

Still, the legislation for the first time stipulates that the government operate under the basic philosophy that foreign residents “who wish to study Japanese must be guaranteed as much as possible of the opportunity to do so, in a way that would match their needs, abilities and circumstances they are placed in.”

The law covers children, students, salaried workers, technical interns and refugees.

It also clarifies that municipalities bear the responsibility to take appropriate measures to facilitate Japanese-language education and urges employers to provide foreign workers and their families with tutorial opportunities. The law tasks the central government with implementing “fiscal measures” toward these goals.

The legislation also calls for improving the quality of Japanese schools and urges the state to take steps to improve the salaries of their teachers. Moreover, as part of its push for a “comprehensive” educational policy, it stipulates that the government set up a special council to foster coordination among the education ministry, foreign ministry and other relevant agencies.

The bill was submitted by a cross-party group of lawmakers at a time when Japan is steadily drawing more foreign residents but has largely “failed to provide a sufficient environment where they can study Japanese,” lawmaker Masaharu Nakagawa told the Upper House committee on education Thursday.

Figures compiled by the Justice Ministry show that the number of non-Japanese residents across the nation had hit a record 2.73 million as of the end of last year, up 6.6 percent from a year earlier.

The demographic is predicted to grow further in line with a new visa system launched in April that paves the way for importing more foreign labor for what are typically regarded as blue-collar jobs in the construction, agriculture, fishery, nursery and building-cleaning industries, among others.

Uichi Kamiyoshi, an associate professor of Japanese education at Musashino University, said the law is significant in that it gives legal backing to efforts to teach foreign residents Japanese.

“Municipalities in Japan have long been hard-pressed to do anything about Japanese education, because the lack of any legal basis for promoting it has meant they have no way of convincing naysayers why they need to do it, and that they would have to do it within the limitations of their own budget,” Kamiyoshi said.

Although the 2001 law for promoting culture and the arts does mention the importance of “enriching” Japanese education, its fundamental emphasis is on facilitating foreign residents’ understanding of Japanese culture, rather than encouraging their integration with Japanese society — the spirit underlying the new law, he said.

Iki Tanaka, manager of the YSC Global School, which is operated by the nonprofit organization Youth Support Center, agrees that the absence of a legal basis has “left municipalities figuring out on their own” what to do with the needs of their non-Japanese residents, leading to a “vast discrepancy” in the level of assistance each doles out.

While voicing hopes the law will help rectify such disparities, Tanaka says she isn’t entirely optimistic.

“I doubt the enactment of the law alone would immediately translate to a generous amount of funding, so we will probably need to think how best we can utilize limited budgets and resources.”

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