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Youth Support Center Multicultural Children and Youth Japanese Language School:Helping build futures for children with foreign background

This month's Close UP features the Multicultural Children and Youth Japanese Language School ("Kodomo Nihongo Kyoshitsu"), which is organized and managed by a nonprofit organization the Youth Support Center. The program is designed to teach Japanese and major school subjects to children with foreign backgrounds, many of which have been having difficulties attending school regularly. The program is currently offered at three locations, including Fussa City, Kiyose City, and Adachi City. For this interview, we visited the classroom in Fussa and spoke with Rie Pitchford, who works for the program as a multicultural coordinator.

Rie Pitchford Multicultural Coordinator

Rie Pitchford
Multicultural Coordinator

Tell us how the Kodomo Nihongo Kyoshitsu program started.

A.The Youth Support Center, the organizer of the program, has long been supporting young people who have withdrawn from society and have not been able to go to school or work. As it is based in Fussa City, where the population of foreign people is large, the organization started a project for permanent foreign residents in 2009 to assist the lives of those foreign people and families in local communities. In April 2010, we started to regularly offer a Japanese language program for children here in Fussa with funds provided by the Bridging Course ("Niji-no Kakehashi Kyoshitsu") project by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the International Organization for Migration. In 2011, we also opened the classrooms in Kiyose City and Adachi City. At all three locations, our courses are offered free of charge to children who have a foreign background.

What is the main support that the Kodomo Nihongo Kyoshitsu is designed to offer?

class in session
at the Kodomo Nihongo Kyoshitsu

A. Our program targets children and youth who are having difficulties going to school, and we support them in both Japanese language and school subjects so that the children eventually can attend school regularly. The "Bridging Course" is a six-month program in principle, but in reality, it is almost impossible to teach them enough skills in both Japanese and school subjects within six months so that they can keep up with the classes at school. In such a case, we ask school principles to request an extension of the program for those students so that they can stay in the program for at least a year to continue their work. As their Japanese improves, they gradually increase the number of days they go to school. In the Fussa class, we also provide transportation between their home and the class and also between school and the class. For children who have not attended school at all for a while, it is hard to get out of the house unless someone would pick them up. We also have students coming from all over the west Tama area to Fussa, including those of families with financial hardships who cannot afford transportation.

What are the schedules like at the Kodomo Nihongo Kyoshitsu?

A. Our program runs five days a week from Monday through Friday, and each day consists of five classes. On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, we have two classes in the morning and three classes in the afternoon. On Wednesday and Friday, we don't have morning classes but start with three classes as usual in the afternoon, followed by two evening classes designed specifically for students who have started going to school but still need some help to keep up with their schoolwork. We mainly teach Japanese language, as well as English and Math. We also teach science and social studies on certain days of the week. We have four classrooms on one floor, and two Japanese language teachers and two subject teachers teach at the same time. Students are divided into small groups according to their skill levels for both in Japanese and subject classes so that they can study at the appropriate level. At this time, we have many students getting ready for high school entrance exams, and we offer them special curriculum for the test preparation.

What makes your program so unique?

A.The goal of this program is to help children attend school regularly, so we are trying to keep our classroom atmosphere as close as possible to the regular school. Each class is given by a group. We also have classroom rules. For example, using cell phones is prohibited in the classroom, and students have to check in their phone with teachers when they come to the class. We also require them to write their name if they want to borrow a book from the library; to ask teachers to borrow a pencil or a notebook if they forget to bring them; to contact us when they are late for or cannot make it to the class. When we need to scold them, we do. Those children are not a guest or a visitor, but someone who will spend their lives in Japan. In that respect, it is also our role to teach them skills so that they may adapt themselves to Japanese society.

Rules are posted on classroom walls

Can you tell us about the background of your students at the Fussa class?

student who has recently moved to Japan is learning hiragana

A.Currently, we have a little over 40 students from age 10 to 18 coming to the Fussa class. Their foreign roots account for nine countries. The largest group here is those connected to Philippine, but we also have students from China, Peru, Nepal, Indonesia, Thailand, the United States, South Korea, and more. In the overwhelmingly common cases, many children are brought to Japan by their mothers who have been working in Japan. So some kids join our program with no previous experience of Japanese language. We also have children who were born and have been raised in Japan, and those whose nationality is Japanese.

What common problems do you find among children with a foreign background?

A.Good education is imperative for those children to gain skills that would allow them to live independently in Japan in the future. The reality is, however, that it is still quite challenging for them to continue education into high school. Because of the financial situation, public high schools are the only choices for them. But spaces for foreign students are very limited at full-time public high schools, so many of them have to choose part-time high schools. Children who do not speak Japanese as a mother language but have Japanese nationality are not even eligible for the spaces for foreign students. Regardless of their desire to study at high school in Japan, some children get discouraged when they see problems of past entrance exams of the public high schools.

It must be really difficult to help children stay motivated to study in such situations.

A. The students have times of ups and downs, emotionally and physically, but we try to keep them motivated by taking them to a campus tour or a school guidance day. Some children are very surprised to know that nearly 99 percent of children go to high school in Japan. The students here are living their lives within a very small world. They don't know what it takes to get into high school in Japan, or what choices of jobs are available out in the world. They see adults around them working at a factory or a deli and would not particularly question spending their future life just like them. We think it is necessary to provide them with career guidance and employment support to help them open up their eyes to other directions. Once they gain a clear picture of their future job, they can start planning a path to achieve it, including what types of school they should go and what they should study at the school.

A teacher checks how each student is doing

We understand that the development of their mother language is also very important for children with a foreign background.

A.Whether or not a child has his/her mother language established means whether that child has a language as a basis of his/her thinking. Children without an established mother language are likely to have trouble understanding invisible, abstract things, such as a concept of "minus" of math, for example. When children come to Japan at a certain older age, they can use the knowledge they have gained in their mother language to learn and understand the same things in Japanese by translating from one language to the other. However, young children whose mother language has not been established before coming to Japan could fall into a "double-limited" situation, in which both their mother language and Japanese as a second language are acquired only halfway. We have seen cases of students who grew up without receiving appropriate language assistance for many years and now cannot use either Japanese or mother language sufficiently, which also affects their understanding in school subjects.

Why are those children left unattended without receiving appropriate language help?

A.School teachers generally judge whether or not a student needs assistance for his/her Japanese by the student's ability of understanding the instructions they give to the student. So once the student understands the teacher's instructions and becomes used to the school life, the teachers think the student does not need language assistance anymore. Therefore, if a student's Japanese is good enough to survive everyday life but is not sufficient to keep up with schoolwork, and if he doesn't do well in the class, the blame may often be made to the student for not studying hard enough. On the other hand, we have cases of what we call a "single-limited" situation, where a child, who was born and grew up in Japan and speaks only Japanese, has a very weak language skill with limited vocabulary and reading ability. Such a single-limited child will not be able to use age-appropriate language nor gain important information, which prevents him/her from mentally growing. It has been twenty years since the immigration law was changed, and children of permanent foreign residents who were born in Japan are becoming parents themselves of children of a next generation. We anticipate that the problem of the single-limited children will become more serious in the future.

We heard that some children are put into a special needs education class because of the lack of their Japanese language skills.

Each teacher designs a lesson to help students understand better

A.We have seen cases in which children who are disadvantaged in Japanese language are placed in a special needs education class to teach them Japanese due to the lack of manpower to attend them. Once a child is placed in a special needs education class at an elementary school, the child needs to stay in a special needs education class at a junior high school as well. As a result, by the time the student becomes a senior at a junior high school, he/she has learned only an elementary level of math and alphabets for English. This requires the student enormous effort to catch up so that he/she can be ready to take entrance exams to enter a regular class at high school. When a student knows only very limited Japanese, it is very difficult to accurately evaluate whether the student simply needs to improve his/her Japanese or has some learning problems. We think a specialist who can diagnose the problem in multiple languages will be needed in the future. We will also continue to promote the public understanding and support for protecting educational opportunity for children who don't understand Japanese well.

Lastly, please share your message with our readers.

A.We do not see our students with pity. All of our students have something special and are very energetic. They are simply in need of a bit of help right now to establish their future lives in Japan. You would find such children and their mothers who have a foreign background at any elementary schools or junior high schools. And please talk to and make conversations with them when you see them. Those children and mothers may be quiet and look stern just because they are very anxious. It is our hope that people would become friends with them by treating them not as a guest but as a resident who lives in the same community.