During a recent math class at an elementary school in Aichi Prefecture, Kamila Tamy Tida Miyamoto, 31, a Brazilian school assistant, pointed to the textbooks of Aika and Ayumi, second-grade Brazilian students who enrolled this year, as she explained concepts to them in Portuguese.
Currently, 35 non-Japanese students are enrolled at Nisshin Elementary School in Hekinan, Aichi Prefecture, comprising 10 percent of all students. Aika and Ayumi’s class has four other foreign students.
Amid an increase in the number of non-Japanese children living in the Chubu region — a manufacturing hub where many foreign workers are hired — the Hekinan Municipal Government in October started dispatching a non-Japanese school assistant to each of the seven elementary schools in the city.
The assistants help the children communicate smoothly with others and feel comfortable studying at school. It is believed to be rare for a municipality to dispatch non-Japanese assistants who work not only as interpreters for such children but support their school life as a whole.
Miyamoto, a mother of four, has spent more than 20 years living in Japan. She works as a school assistant five hours a day, going around lower-grade classes and supporting children so that they can concentrate on their studies.
She helps fill the cultural gaps and differences in customs, as it is difficult for children that don’t speak Japanese to understand various things they face at school. For example, in Japanese schools, children learn the times table by chanting multiplications in a unique way that may not be understood by foreign students.
Different food culture can also be troubling for them. It takes time for some Brazilian children to get accustomed to eating the sticky Japanese rice served in school lunches because it tastes different from the rice served in Brazil. Miyamoto shows them empathy, telling them to eat at their own pace.
Kazue Tada, 54, the class’s homeroom teacher, says Miyamoto’s attentive support “helps make non-Japanese children become confident and feel at ease. That eases the load on the teachers and also leads to the whole class better understanding what is being taught.”
According to the Hekinan government, non-Japanese elementary school students in the city totaled 257 as of April, up 26 from a year before, making up 6 percent of the total. Many of them are Brazilians.
The number has been rising, putting a burden on teachers, who come across not only language barriers but also children who run out of the classroom or go home without permission. Close coordination with parents is particularly necessary if the possibility of the child having a developmental disorder arises.
School assistants, hired as temporary workers for ¥1,000 per hour, are mostly women like Miyamoto who have raised or are raising children in Japan.
“Sometimes it was difficult for us teachers to convey our thoughts to parents of non-Japanese children, but thanks to Kamila, the parents can now fully understand our intentions,” said Kazumi Hasegawa, 60, principal of Nisshin Elementary School.
The communication barrier between schools and non-Japanese parents was one of the reasons why the city started dispatching school assistants.
At one elementary school, a veteran female teacher held down a non-Japanese child who was behaving violently in an attempt to stop them. But the physical contact affected the parents’ attitude toward the school.
“In this region, it is important to support non-Japanese people who work for the automotive industry and their families,” said Hiroyuki Ikuta, head of the city’s board of education. “We plan to continue the program next year, since the school assistants themselves also appear to find the job rewarding.”
Yoshimi Kojima, an associate professor at Aichi Shukutoku University in Nagakute who is well-versed in educational support for foreign children, welcomed the move, praising the fact that the program focuses on supporting not only children but also their parents.
“There have been efforts to invite assistants as volunteers, but the program is groundbreaking in that they are hired as school staff,” she said.
“I hope they will act as interpreters of (non-Japanese people’s) feelings,” she said, adding that if the assistants are hired not as temporary staff but regular staff, they will be more motivated and schools can ensure high-quality support.
“The program will serve as a great model for other municipalities struggling with similar problems,” Kojima said.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Dec. 8.