KAWASAKI – As Japan welcomes more foreign workers under new visas introduced in April, a city near Tokyo with a large foreign population is taking steps to help the children of foreign nationals overcome language barriers at school.
Municipal officials in Kawasaki Ward, in the city of Kawasaki, teamed up with Seikyu-sha, a social welfare service provider, to jointly host a summer school this year for junior high school students who have come to Japan within the past three years.
As of late June, the ward was home to nearly 40 percent of the city’s 44,000 foreign residents. At the summer school, retired teachers offered the children help with homework and writing essays in Japanese.
Also pitching in to offer advice and encouragement were former high school and university students who had struggled to learn Japanese themselves as children after spending long periods of their early lives outside Japan. “If you cannot use the language, the chances of entering a university or getting a job will be low. I don’t want you to give up,” Seisho Sasaki, 24, a fourth-year Kanagawa University student, told some 20 junior high school students attending the summer school on Aug. 1.
Now fluent in Japanese, Sasaki came to Japan in 2012 after being raised in China, where his mother was born, and graduating from a junior high school there.
A male high school student with a Chinese parent also spoke about his struggles to adapt to Japanese society. “I didn’t know what the teachers were saying in class at first. But I passed the high school exam with the teachers’ support, and by meeting people who had the same worries as me at my school and in the local community,” said the student.
Seikyu-sha has been helping foreign children learn Japanese since 2004 in Kawasaki Ward. The group’s efforts were acknowledged by the municipality, and they started collaborating this year. “It is hard to keep up in class when students come to Japan in the upper grades of elementary school or junior high school,” said Chiyoko Hara, a 62-year-old senior official at Seikyu-sha.
Out of 166 elementary and junior high schools run by the Kawasaki Municipal Government, 27 have special Japanese classes to support foreign children — up from eight in 2015. “But we need even more support,” Hara said.
In the city’s Nakahara Ward, which hosts the second-largest community of foreign residents after Kawasaki Ward, the city’s education board and local residents last year jointly established a program inspired by terakoya — traditional temple schools in the Edo Period (1603-1868) — to support the education of foreign children. At traditional terakoya, the children of commoners were taught reading, writing and soroban (abacus).
In Nakahara Ward, there were only two participants at first, but the number has since increased to 10. The lessons, which are now offered at other wards in the city, take place at schools and other public facilities.
In August, an event was held to train people, including retired teachers and housewives, to teach in the terakoya program. The session was attended by 14 people.
“Children who cannot communicate in Japanese tend to be isolated, but they still want to be acknowledged by others,” said Makoto Kunishima, 65, a lecturer at the session. “I want the teachers to support them in finding motivation to study and make friends.”
Despite having retired, Kunishima teaches at the city-run Saginuma Elementary School and is in charge of a class that supports foreign children.
In April, the central government opened the nation’s doors wider to foreign workers in a major policy shift aimed at tackling an acute labor shortage, amid the rapid graying of the population.