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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Evening classes support foreigners

Sep. 22, 2017

In the past few years, droves of new residents have moved to Japan from abroad. Last year, the number of foreign residents living in the country topped 2.3 million, the highest level on record.

Some of the newcomers arrived without finishing compulsory schooling in their home countries. One public school organization is now playing a key role in supporting these people.

Komatsugawa Daini Public Junior High School is located in eastern Tokyo. Evening classes begin at 5:30 PM, after the school’s ordinary daytime classes finish.

It may be a junior high school but the students’ ages range into the 70s, well beyond the age of regular junior high school kids. The school has about 50 students.

Evening classes like these began in the late 1940s after World War II. They were designed for people who hadn’t received proper compulsory education for a number of reasons, such as illness or non-attendance. The classes are free of charge.

In recent years, a new group of students has been attending the classes. Foreigners from nine countries make up 80 percent of the student body.

Eighteen-year-old Susan Subedi had not yet graduated when he came to Japan from Nepal to join his parents. He now attends evening classes after working at his part-time job. A gentle reminder by the teacher not to use his mobile phone in class shows that he is still adjusting to the rules.

The school has a set time for teaching Japanese as a second language. The classes progress in a way that’s easy for students to follow. For example, a teacher discusses with Susan in simple Japanese the rules surrounding a visit to a temple.

Susan didn't know Japanese at all when he first came to Japan, but now he can understand the lessons very well, and he speaks often.

The school also offers the students advice about their futures. Recently, Susan brought his mother to class to discuss his plans with his homeroom teacher. The teacher said Susan should study very hard if he wants to stay in Japan because “when you get older, that will help you find a good job.”

"Before I entered this school, I didn't know the Japanese alphabets, and I wasn't thinking about the future,” Susan said. “But since I started studying, I’ve decided to enter high school after I graduate, in six months' time."

Susan’s mother was grateful.

"I think the teacher is treating my son well, like a parent," she said.

An official from the education ministry said that for foreigners who haven't finished school, the evening classes serve an important role in rounding out their education.

"Evening junior high schools give people from overseas the knowledge and skills they need to live in Japan,” says Yuichi Tokiwagi. “These schools also naturally lead those people toward social and economic independence, which in turn contributes to the creation of a stable society and a bright future for Japan."

Newsroom Tokyo’s Aki Shibuya and Hideki Nakayama were joined by Professor Satoshi Miyazaki of Waseda University. He's an expert on the issue of education for foreign people living in Japan.

Shibuya: How many public junior high schools in Japan offer evening classes?

Miyazaki: There are just 31 public night junior high schools nationwide, and they're all within just 8 of the nation's 47 prefectures, including Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima.

Nakayama: Why aren't there more of these schools?

Miyazaki: The education ministry has a policy of creating at least one new night junior high school in each of the 47 prefectures. But only two municipalities have started moving towards opening them. The government wants more of these schools, but the decision to open them is in the hands of municipalities. There are a lot of foreign students, but they don't have a strong voice, and unfortunately the schools themselves aren't widely recognized.

Shibuya: In recent years, the number of foreign workers in Japan has increased, exceeding 1 million last year. Of course, many of them need to acquire the Japanese language. We next look at where they are getting support to do that.

The city of Kawaguchi is located on the northern border of Tokyo. In the last 10 years, its foreign resident population has doubled. These people are seen as key to helping solve Japan's serious labor shortage.

Four Vietnamese workers are in charge of the bread-making process at a bakery that has been in business for more than 50 years.

"Just like the entire food service industry, our company is facing a labor shortage,” said one of the employees. “Without these people, we wouldn’t be able to stay open."

In response to the growing number of foreign residents, the city has drawn up a list of Japanese language classes taught by volunteers. "The city can’t provide enough funds,” said Kawaguchi city official, Hajime Kawata. “So volunteers play an important role."

One such class is taught at Kawaguchi Voluntary Evening Junior High School. Twice a week, the team makes use of rooms at community centers where volunteers, including retired teachers, teach classes for free.

When the school first opened 32 years ago, the teachers focused on general subjects like math or science. But now most of the students are foreigners who want to learn Japanese.

One of them arrived in Japan from the Philippines a month ago. It's the first time he has attended a class. "I want to learn the Japanese language so I can work here and help my mom," he said.

Another student from Vietnam said the classes are convenient.

"I work during the daytime every day, so I don’t have time to go to private language schools,” he said. “These nighttime classes are my only option."

But the school is facing problems. There's been a big influx of students and there are not enough volunteer teachers to go around. Each volunteer now has to work with several students at the same time.

One of the volunteers used to teach math and doesn't have much experience teaching Japanese. He said he has difficulty explaining the subtle differences of the Japanese language including the nuances between kanji characters.

A student asked him how to differentiate between the two kanji that mean “make”. The teacher did his best to provide an answer and then suggested checking a dictionary. "I sometimes feel that it would be better to leave such a complicated topic to an expert who knows more than I do," he said.

The school is also facing a chronic lack of funds, so volunteers sometimes buy textbooks themselves.

The group representative, Kazuo Kaneko, is worried about the difficulty of coping with the growing number of students with only a volunteer staff. "All the students are at different stages of learning, and the difficult thing is that each volunteer has to cope with several students at once,” he said. “We have to work only with what we have."

Nakayama: They're clearly dealing with a lot more than they can handle. Why is this?

Miyazaki: The main problem is that there aren't many public services helping foreigners learn Japanese. Some foreign adults learn Japanese at language schools, and others pay individual teachers — but that costs time and money. So foreign immigrants tend to rely on volunteer Japanese tutors because they're free.

Shibuya: What's behind the lack of government support?

Miyazaki: Japan has the lowest total fertility rate, or TFR, in the world. But we are still not aware of how vital immigrants may be to the future of the country. Other countries that have low TFRs, such as South Korea, and Singapore, have introduced language policies to help immigrants to have a soft landing.

Nakayama: What does Japan need to do to change the situation?

Miyazaki: We need to have an immigration policy and promote education for foreigners at both the public and civic levels. It is crucial to integrate newcomers from abroad into the Japanese society.