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Many foreign children in Japan enrolled in special-needs classes for ‘language’ reasons

  • April 12, 2022
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

TOKYO — One in 20 public elementary and junior high school students who need Japanese language assistance belong to a special-needs class, the first education ministry survey on such a topic has revealed.


The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology conducted its first survey on the number of children enrolled in special-needs classes at public elementary and junior high schools nationwide while requiring Japanese language instruction, and found that of the 52,922 children that required assistance in studying Japanese, 2,704 were enrolled in special-needs classes. The ratio was 5.1%, higher than the 3.6% among all children enrolled in public elementary and junior high schools. The result was announced on March 25.


Although the education ministry states that it “does not know the reason” for this high enrollment rate, those who have supported children of foreign nationalities testify that “in some cases, children are encouraged to enroll (in special-need classes) because they can receive Japanese language lessons.” While this kind of consideration can be expected to provide generous support, it also carries the risk of disadvantages in the selection of future career paths.


Nayara Natsumi Kinjo, 30, a fourth-generation Japanese-Brazilian living in Gifu Prefecture, still cannot forget what her homeroom teacher said to her in her first year of high school: “I think you might have a disability.” After completing a test in the classroom, she had her elbows on the desk and a towel over her head, which, in the teacher’s eyes, looked odd.


Kinjo came to Japan with her parents when she was 5 years old. As an elementary school student, she had difficulty understanding Japanese and could not master multiplication tables until sixth grade. Because she had struggled so hard to get into high school, the experience of being treated as “different” by her teacher came as a shock to her.


After a meeting with her parents, the teacher’s misunderstanding was cleared up. However, what this experience made her keenly aware of was that “if you have a different nationality, name, or appearance, you will be given excessive attention just because something small happens.”


Kinjo later studied social welfare at graduate school and now runs a facility that supports children with developmental challenges. The Gifu prefectural city of Kani, where the facility is located, is one of the cities with a high concentration of foreign residents, and Brazilian and Filipino children also attend the facility. She is also involved in a service that helps schools and parents communicate with each other in the hope that they will not feel the same way she did in the past.


Kinjo has seen children of foreign nationality suspected of having a disability for reasons such as “lack of composure” and “the inability to study even though they can speak Japanese.”

She said, “It may be that they just don’t understand the teacher’s Japanese instructions and are just looking around restlessly, and even if they can speak daily conversation, it doesn’t really mean that they can understand the language in studies. I would like teachers to carefully assess whether the child really has a disability or not.”


Some schools recommend special-needs classes for the sake of the children, given the current inadequate Japanese language assistance system. The reason is that it is more desirable for children to receive extensive support than to be left in a regular class without understanding the lessons. However, this kind of consideration is not always good for the child.


According to Iki Tanaka, 43, director of YSC Global School in Fussa, Tokyo, which provides learning support for children with overseas roots, some junior high school special-needs classes focus more on Japanese language and basic academic skills and do not teach the content of junior high school level studies. Although this makes it difficult for the students to advance to full-time high school, some parents, without understanding the disadvantages, wish to enroll their children in special-needs classes, thinking that they give them the opportunity to study Japanese.


Tanaka said, “First of all, it is important to make sure that children in special-needs classes and their parents are satisfied with the current situation. The advantages and disadvantages should be explained through an interpreter.”


(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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