Current concerns (22): The hidden costs of working abroad (on the education of returnees)


The hidden costs of working abroad

By Kahori Sakane

This is the second half of a two-part story focusing on the issues faced by returnee students who have lived overseas for a few years due to their parents’ work:


OSAKA–Children living overseas due to their parents’ work sometimes feel as if their lives have been turned upside down as many firms abruptly shift personnel with little regard for children’s issues.

“We moved to Chicago in August 2007, believing my husband would be posted there for two years,” said Emi Miyake, wife of the president of an Osaka-based machine parts manufacturer’s subsidiary in Illinois. “But because of this business slump, we’re staying longer than we thought and have no idea how long we’ll be here.”

Because the transfer came with little advance notice, Miyake’s 15-year-old daughter, Arika, entered a public middle school in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, and spent the first semester of her first year there before moving to the United States.

Before coming to Chicago–the Miyakes had previously been posted in Indiana from 1995 to 1998–the family thought of sending Arika to a local middle school in the midwestern state, hoping to broaden her horizons by having her experience different cultures. “But soon after we arrived, we realized we knew nothing about the actual situation,” she said.

As she talked to other Japanese living in Chicago and contacted schools, she learned that English as a Second Language classes at the local public schools were already full, and they could not expect extra educational support. Moreover, students had to pass several levels of tests to join regular classes.

Some Japanese students reportedly had to remain in ESL classes for almost a year and were only able to obtain credits in math and physical education during the first year.

With a regular local middle school apparently not an option, the Miyakes instead sent Arika to a Japanese school as a first-year middle school student, as it would be better for her when she returned to Japan and entered high school.

But the Miyakes also learned that many public high schools in Japan do not accept returnees if they are second-year students or older, and those that did expected the students to have earned a certain amount of credits overseas.

Eighty-eight Japanese schools in 51 nations that cover the compulsory curriculum are designated by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry as equivalent to public schools in Japan. For Arika, studying at the Japanese school meant she could take an entrance exam for high schools in Japan without being worried about having enough credits.

In July, Arika returned to Japan with her mother for three weeks to visit high schools that she might attend.

They also attended an educational seminar for returnees in Osaka in which about 160 mothers and children visiting from overseas talked with teachers in charge of returnee education at more than 40 schools.

Although the family has not been notified yet, their next post is likely to be Okayama Prefecture or another rural area in Japan where the firm’s branches are located.

Meanwhile, Arika is preparing to take entrance exams for a private high school and prefectural high school in the prefecture.

“There’s not much choice in schools in rural areas, compared with big cities like Tokyo,” Miyake said.

Due to the business slump, the number of students who left Arika’s Japanese school in Chicago and returned to Japan in March tripled compared to a regular year–some returned in the middle of the year because their fathers had been suddenly transferred–and new students in April were down by half, according to Miyake.

“The impact of the economy on the lives of children living with parents working overseas is not very well known,” said Akiko Kataoka, a representative of Kakehashi, a Kansai-based support group for returnees.

According to the Foreign Ministry, out of 755,724 Japanese living overseas for more than three months last year, 61,252 were primary and middle school students, the most ever.

The number was more than 9 times that of 1971, continuing an upward tick every year except in 1994, after the bubble economy burst, when it fell to 49,397.

Even with the increased number of students living abroad, 11,750 children of compulsory school age returned to Japan from overseas after more than three months abroad in fiscal 2008, the most in nine years.

According to Kataoka, female returnees were touted in the 1980s and early 1990s as “bairin gyaru” [bilingual girls]. Many people still retain the stereotype of them as charming and positive young women or girls who speak fluent English and Japanese.

“Of course, there are shy and bashful boys who lived in non-English-speaking nations that do not fit the stereotype, but people haven’t been concerned with them,” she said.

“Even though the character and experience of returnees have become more diverse in the past 20 years, there isn’t much interest–even from the central government–in their problems, which makes it difficult to improve the situation,” Kataoka said.

“Such problems as adjusting to the culture of a new place and the even more severe culture shock awaiting them when they return to Japanese society, are considered a problem to be solved only among returnees and their parents,” she said.

Another difficulty, according to the group, is that the attention once given to returnees is now focused on foreign children in Japan, such as Brazilians of Japanese descent.

The group hopes to raise public awareness of returnee issues to help them adjust to life in Japan and also continue drawing on their knowledge of international cultures.

The central government has tapped 12 middle and high schools attached to national universities to accept returnees in regular classes or special returnee classes.

There are also private schools that provide additional curricula for returnees who need to make up coursework not covered in the different educational systems of other nations.

Keimei Gakuin Junior and Senior High School in Kobe, which became affiliated with Kwansei Gakuin University in 2002, shows the most flexibility in accepting returnees in Hyogo Prefecture.

Hachiro Ozaki, principal of the school, said: “We treasure diversity at our school. We decided to have special entrance exams for returnees because we thought we could attract a variety of talented students, and we thought it would be better than trying to look for those good students around the nation.”

However, the school does not specify how many returnees it accepts each year. “We don’t choose returnees based only on their entrance exams [which are held in Japan and Singapore]. We consider each returnee’s background and interview them. If we see a student’s potential for growth, we accept them,” he said.

For returnees who are behind academically in certain subjects, the school gives them supplementary work before and after they enter the school to get them up to speed.

Momoyama Junior High School attached to Kyoto University of Education in Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, has a special class of mostly returnees that also includes children of international marriages.

The class, which began in 1975, basically accepts students whose Japanese skills are not strong enough to attend regular public school.

Therefore, the Japanese language skills vary across the 15-student classes, but they are brought up to a sufficient level by the third year when they join regular classes.

By asking the special class students once a year to write and present an essay on their background and experience in other nations, the school acknowledges the importance of these experiences and nurtures a wider perspective and the use of other languages.

“We want the returnees to think about their future and new aims as an act of self-affirmation,” said Minoru Sasaki, a teacher in charge of returnee education at the school.

“Some returnees who have had difficulty catching up with others in the special class have a negative attitude toward their overseas experiences,” he said.

“But [the achievements of others] show that they have regained confidence in themselves and their experiences.”

Sohei Yamaoka, 61, an adviser of Japan Overseas Educational Services’ Kansai branch affiliated with the foreign ministry and the education ministry, said that in the past few decades, more Japanese had developed an interest in other nations from traveling, studying and working abroad, but these experiences had not led to greater understanding for returnees.

“The children’s experiences abroad should never be treated negatively when they come back to Japan,” he said. “We need a variety of schools that will accept them as they are and further extend their talents.”

(Nov 26, 2009 Daily Yomiuri)

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