Editorials

Helping foreign residents learn Japanese

A law enacted last week to promote Japanese-language education is significant in that for the first time it highlighted the government’s responsibility to beef up language education for foreign residents — a key foundation of their life in this country. The number of people from overseas living and working in Japan is expected to keep growing, particularly with the April introduction of new visa statuses to open the door to foreign workers in blue-collar jobs. But measures to help foreign residents overcome the language barrier remain insufficient. The national and local governments need to quickly flesh out the legislation’s objectives with concrete policy steps backed by sufficient funding.

Proposed by a group of lawmakers across party lines and approved unanimously by the Diet, the legislation calls on the government to take comprehensive measures, including legal and fiscal steps, to secure opportunities for foreign residents to receive Japanese-language education in accordance with their needs and wishes.

It calls on improving the quality of education being offered at language institutions and revamping the system for certifying Japanese-language teachers, for whom there is no official license, through better training and licensing plans, and by offering higher pay to match their improved teaching skills. It also urges businesses that hire workers from overseas to help secure language education opportunities for them and their families. The legislation, however, essentially spells out just the basic ideas about Japanese education for foreign residents. How effective the law will be depends on the concrete actions to be taken by each of the parties involved in the task.

Demand for Japanese-language education is expected to keep increasing as the foreign population grows. At the end of last year, the number of foreign residents rose 6.6 percent year on year to reach a record 2.73 million. Under the amended immigration control law, the government expects to accept up to some 345,000 new workers in the next five years.

On the other hand, a steep gap has emerged between the growing demand for Japanese-language education and the shortage of such teachers. According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, the number of foreign residents studying Japanese rose sharply from about 140,000 in 2012 to 240,000 in 2017. As of fiscal 2017, there were some 39,000 Japanese-language teachers — roughly 60 percent of whom were volunteers who neither need specific qualifications nor teaching experience.

Part-time teachers accounted for about 30 percent of the total, while the remaining 10 percent were full-time teachers. While language education for foreign residents has relied heavily on volunteers, the lack of an official license system and low remuneration are believed to have discouraged people from becoming teachers. People knowledgeable about the situation call for the creation of teaching licenses. Members of the lawmakers’ group that led the effort to get the new law enacted suggest that establishing special courses at universities for teaching Japanese would result in better qualified teachers and encourage more youths to seek such work.

The necessity of measures to help foreign workers overcome communication barriers, including language education and multilingual administrative services, arose in the discussion over accepting more foreign workers to fill the domestic demand for manpower. But language education is also crucial for the children of such workers who have already settled in this country.

In a 2016 survey by the education ministry, a total of 43,947 pupils at elementary to high schools across Japan — of both foreign and Japanese nationality — were deemed to require extra Japanese-language guidance because they either could not engage in daily conversation in Japanese or lacked the language ability commensurate with their grade and had difficulty taking part in education activities. The number of such children has increased 1.7 times over the past decade. Still, 24 percent of such pupils were in fact not given the Japanese-language instruction deemed necessary for them.

The number of foreign students at domestic institutions offering Japanese-language education is said to have increased nearly three times over the past five years. However, the mixed quality of the language education given to such students came into the focus following recent revelations that more than 1,600 students at a university in Tokyo went missing in the three years from 2016. A plan is needed to ensure the quality of the language education provided by Japanese institutions.

The enactment of a new law that spells out the government’s responsibility to ensure adequate Japanese-language education for residents from overseas is a step forward. Policy actions and funding to back it up must now follow.

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