Fostering an environment where foreign nationals can carry out their daily lives as a part of society without worry is becoming a growing challenge for Japan. An important part of realizing this goal is raising the Japanese language proficiency of foreign residents.
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According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 2.56 million foreign nationals residing in Japan in 2017. As that number continues to grow each year, there have been some cases of trouble in schools and workplaces where foreign residents have been unable to become part of the local community due to a lack of understanding of the Japanese language or other communication breakdowns.
But is the current Japanese language education system for foreign residents meeting the growing demand?
A survey carried out by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in fiscal 2016 found that roughly 220,000 foreign nationals were learning Japanese, with the figure having grown by 90,000 over a five-year period. However, of the some 38,000 Japanese instructors across the country, 60 percent were found to be volunteers. That is to say, the Japanese language education system for adult learners excluding foreign students is supported by local volunteers.
At the same time, it cannot be said that the support system for children is any better. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology reported that there were 44,000 students that needed special Japanese language instruction in the 2016 academic year -- 1.7 times the number 10 years earlier.
Even in regions without a high population of foreign nationals, the number of schools where several children are in need of language support is growing, and schools are becoming more international.
Trained teachers, among others, are instructing these students, but there are not enough teachers to meet the demand, and many children are receiving support from nonprofit organizations and other goodwill groups instead. The Education Ministry is writing up teaching guidelines and materials for instructors, but with the diversity of classroom environments, it is hard to keep up with the reality of the situation.
For children requiring special Japanese language instruction, the Education Ministry has allowed such students to take Japanese language and math in a separate classroom. But this measure is apparently mainly restricted to areas with large numbers of foreign students.
More support is needed for both children and adults. But there are no laws requiring governments, either at the central or municipal levels, to provide Japanese language education to foreign residents. The government should make an effort to establish an education system that allows for the allocation of funds and the provision of enough teachers.
A multipartisan group of lawmakers has drafted a basic bill to promote Japanese language education for foreign nationals residing in Japan. The bill clearly outlines the responsibilities of the central and local governments, and sets fundamental principles such as securing opportunities for anyone who wishes to learn Japanese and raising educational standards for those services.
Japanese language learning programs abroad for individuals aiming to study or work in Japan are also essential. If the Japanese government is moving to accept more foreign nationals into the domestic workforce, then the government should take the initiative in starting discussions about support systems for those workers.