The government needs to take urgent action in response to the recent finding that nearly 20,000 school-age foreign children living in Japan may not be attending school. Ensuring that children of any nationality have access to a quality education — one of the United Nations’ 12 Rights of the Child — is a must, especially at a time when the nation expects to have more residents from overseas.

In the first survey of its kind, the education ministry found that of the roughly 124,000 foreign children eligible to enroll in elementary and junior high school nationwide, 19,654, or 15.8 percent, may not be attending a public, private or international school. The figure included 1,000 children who were confirmed through enrollment records to not be attending any of these schools, 8,768 whose enrollment could not be confirmed because nobody was present when officials visited their homes for the survey, and 9,886 whose circumstances could not be verified because their names were listed under the resident registration system but were absent from school registers. There are reports that some children engage in jobs or take care of younger siblings instead of going to school.

Elementary and junior high school education is compulsory for Japanese children. While attendance is not compulsory for the children of foreign nationals living here, those schools will accept them free of charge if they wish to be enrolled.

The International Covenants on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Japan has ratified, say everyone has the right to receive an education. In that sense, the government should see it as its duty to ensure school opportunities for all children, irrespective of their nationality. That is all the more urgent given the sharp increase in the number of non-Japanese living and working in this country — the amended immigration control law implemented this year paves the way for a greater inflow of workers from abroad — and education for children is one of the basic needs of people from overseas as they live in our society.

Behind the large numbers of foreign children who do not attend school here are said to be an insufficient command of Japanese by them and their parents, as well as the mixed system of support by municipalities to help children become enrolled in local schools.

There are 1,196 cities, towns and villages that have at least one foreign child of elementary and junior high school age among their residents — 68.7 percent of all municipalities across the country. However, 649 municipalities do not send notices to households with eligible non-Japanese children about enrollment in elementary or junior high school.

Even among the municipalities that do, many delivered only documents written in Japanese — even though the recipients may not fully understand Japanese. About 65 percent of all municipalities say they are not taking extra steps to look into the circumstances of foreign children who are not attending school or whose enrollment status is unclear. Due to their tight budgetary constraints, many small municipalities reportedly do not have full-time instructors to teach Japanese to foreign residents.

The system for providing support to children with a poor command of Japanese remains insufficient. According to a separate survey by the education ministry last year, 50,579 students (both of foreign and Japanese nationality) at public elementary, junior high and high schools nationwide need extra Japanese-language help — either with their daily conversation skill or their ability to keep up with education provided in their respective grade — an increase of 6,812 from the previous survey two years earlier. However, 11,008 of such students in fact did not receive extra support, such as with special lessons in Japanese.

Based on the latest findings, the education ministry reportedly plans to explore steps to improve the environment for foreign children of foreign nationality to attend school in this country. People familiar with the situation surrounding foreign children warn that poor Japanese-language ability — either among the parents or the children — may lead many to drop out even if they enroll. Beefing up language support in schools accepting foreign children is an urgent task.

The problem of foreign children not attending school is nothing new. The issue has been known since immigration rules were changed in the 1990s to allow overseas people of Japanese ancestry to resettle and work here, bringing in large number of such people from Latin America. The number of foreign residents reached a record 2.73 million at the end of last year, with that of foreign workers also at a record 1.46 million as of last fall. The survey by the education ministry on the problem is a long-overdue first step toward national-level action to address the problem, which is all the more urgent as Japan opens up to more workers from abroad.

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