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Giving children a chance to integrate in Japan

Immigrant and refugee children offered intensive summer study program to learn Japanese
Giving children a chance to integrate in Japan

Immigrant and refugee children gather for intensive summer school classes. (Photo supplied) 

Published: September 16, 2016 03:54 AM GMT
Updated: September 16, 2016 03:56 AM GMT

Recently, 20 schoolchildren made their way to Meiji Gakuin, a Protestant university in Tokyo, to spend their summer vacation studying Japanese.

The children, ranging from sixth-year elementary to third-year junior high school age, all came from refugee and immigrant families and have difficulty with Japanese.

During the 20-day program, Japanese lessons were offered to students grouped by ability level, while instruction and review of other core subjects was conducted in classes arranged by grade level.

This year was the first for this program, which was organized by Support 21 Social Welfare Foundation with funding from an international non-profit organization and in collaboration with Meiji Gakuin University.

Meiji Gakuin last year embarked on an initiative — Project on Internal Internationalization. As the numbers of foreign workers, refugees, and international marriages rise, the university hopes the project's efforts will equip young people to help Japan change from within and embrace the newfound diversity inside its borders.


In one of Meiji University's "Interior Gobalization" project activities, immigrant children practice with members of the university's Aikido Club. (Photo supplied)


Falling behind: the slippery slope

Public schools in Japan follow a system of "social promotion," meaning that all students advance to the next grade regardless of academic achievement. Even if a sixth-year elementary student doesn't speak a word of Japanese and thus can't follow lessons, he will be advanced to middle school automatically.

Without solving the underlying language problem, the student's chances of keeping up with peers get smaller with each passing year. By graduation the student's poor record may rob him of his choice of profession and the hope of financial stability.

Support 21's educational assistance is intended to help counteract this. The group holds study help sessions every Saturday, but this alone is insufficient, which is why they decided to offer the summer school this year.

"One day a week isn't enough to make up the ground students lose in their studies on a daily basis," says Rie Yazaki, a coordinator with Support 21. "Without using every day of the breaks for extra study, there's no way to make headway, so for a long time now we've wanted to open a summer school."

Ayano Mori is one Meiji Gakuin student volunteer. She recalls a middle-school classmate who came to Japan as an exchange student with little Japanese ability and struggled with class work and communication.

"On top of that," Mori said, "those who look different sometimes don't find any close native Japanese friends — it's sad. If school counselors understood the distress of children with foreign backgrounds, they could speak out for them and look after them."


Problems continue after middle school, but there is hope

Japan's compulsory education program ends after middle school, but even those who go on to high school and college face challenges, Support 21's Yazaki says, and not only because of the danger of falling behind or dropping out.

Indeed, a subtler trap lies in store for many. Non-native students spend so much time trying to get into college that they never have a chance to consider the direction of their lives beyond. Since getting to college at all costs is their only goal, they tend to enter programs and degrees that are easy to get into and which often don't give them good prospects for meaningful and well-paid jobs after graduation.

Having people to help them think about their dreams and life plans would make a difference, but many students from immigrant families can't find anyone to do that for them.

Given that this summer's program could end up playing a critical role in its participant's futures, then, its organizers are cheered by its apparent success. Despite the long hours of study, students had fun being with other students with roots outside of Japan and thrived in an environment centered on their needs.

Yazaki believes that these children's unique backgrounds could, with the right nurture, be turned into advantages. Beyond simple vocational skill, they could enter a workplace with "deeper understanding of others, kindness, and sensitivity toward different cultures" compared to their Japanese counterparts, plus the ability to speak multiple languages, she says.

"If we enabled them to bring their various experiences to the table as strengths, they would be able to live their lives the way they choose and, perhaps, get even better jobs than Japanese people."

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