Schools reaching out to prevent foreign kids falling through cracks.
Feb 17, 2004 THE DAILY YOMIURI
As more and more foreign residents remain in Japan for longer periods, more and more foreign children are attending Japanese schools in their local communities. At the same time, however, it is suspected that quite a few foreign children are not attending school at all.
According to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, the number of foreign students attending public primary and middle schools exceeded 17,000 in September 2002. But at the same time, the ministry has found it impossible to determine exactly how many foreign school-age children have fallen outside the system.
In principle, the ministry cannot force foreign parents to send their children to Japanese schools because the nation’s compulsory education system covers only Japanese nationals. But it is making efforts to let foreign residents know how to take advantage of the nation’s educational services, having compiled guidebooks in seven languages.
Leaving foreign children out of compulsory education is expected to affect not only their future, but also the future of the communities in which they live. The importance of this issue has been underscored in recent years by the involvement of some foreign children who did not attend school in criminal gangs.
Oizumimachi is a municipality with the nation’s highest percentage of non-Japanese residents. The town had about 6,300 registered foreign residents as of the end of last year, accounting for about 15 percent of its population.
Most of these foreign residents are factory workers. The majority are Brazilian nationals of Japanese ancestry, many of whom have been living in the town for more than a decade.
More than 600 of the foreign nationals are primary and middle school-age children, but the town’s seven public compulsory education schools have only about 300 registered foreign students. Taking into account about 100 children attending local private schools for ethnic Brazilians, it is suspected that there are still more than 200 children not attending school.
For the 2002 and 2003 school years, the Oizumimachi Board of Education has been conducting a survey on foreign children suspected of not attending school, with education officials and schoolteachers visiting their homes to interview the children and their parents.
The results of the survey for the first school year show that although some of these children were going to cram schools, 26 children had no place to study other than their own homes. The children and their families gave various explanations. Some said they could not understand Japanese, while others stayed away due to financial burdens.
There were even a few who could not attend school because they had to take care of younger siblings as their parents worked long hours.
The board of education also found that among those believed not to be attending schools, 160 children had actually left town for other places in Japan or for their home countries, illustrating how difficult it was to determine the exact number of foreign children not attending school.
Emiko Yamada, a counselor at the board of education, said as long as foreign children received an education, she did not mind whether it was in the town’s schools or not.
”Unless they receive an education at school, these children will not develop the thinking ability they will ultimately need to choose the course of their futures,” she said.
If foreign children remain out of school for longer and longer periods, it often results in insufficient skills in not only Japanese, but also their native tongues. Some children are actually illiterate because they do not master hiragana or the Roman alphabet.
During the survey, officials told the interviewees about the nation’s education system. As a result, some parents later began sending their children to local schools, but other children still did not attend.
The town government is considering offering foreign children more opportunities to learn Japanese and other necessary knowledge outside school.
Municipally run Nishi Primary School has adopted a new approach in the current school year ― opening a counseling room during after-school hours. Emi Noda, 21, is in charge of the room, helping foreign children adjust to school life.
Noda can relate to them, having had similar experiences. Born to a Japanese-Brazilian father and Japanese mother, she first came to Japan as a sixth-year primary school student and struggled with difficulties in understanding her school studies.
”Foreign children first are filled with anxiety as they do not understand the Japanese language and customs,” she said. “However, I’d like them to take advantage of living in Japan by coming to school to learn from various experiences.”
Megumi Yuki has been helping the town government tackle the issue as an associate professor at the education department of Gunma University. “Children in Oizumi unconsciously understand it is natural for us to be different from each other,” she said. “It is equally important for Japanese (in the rest of the country) to build a society in which people learn from each other.”