Gov't must take responsibility for Chinese workers' lives in Japan
YOKOHAMA -- Kanagawa's capital city of Yokohama, which boasts the country's largest Chinatown, has seen a surge in the number of Chinese children and students. The trend began in around 2000, when the Japanese government relaxed its restrictions on work visas for cooks and other skilled workers.
At Fujimi Junior High School, a public school about a kilometer west of Chinatown, students who are foreign nationals themselves or whose father or mother are foreign nationals now comprise 42 percent of the student population. The school is overwhelmed, unable to deal with so many students who do not speak Japanese.
Since the Japanese government grants these students, who do not come to Japan of their own volition, the permission to enter and reside in this country, shouldn't the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry provide them with comprehensive Japanese language instruction after they arrive?
According to one Yokohama city official, the typical recently-arrived Chinese student will spend much time in school speaking in Chinese with their compatriots. After school, they will return to an empty home and spend time on the Internet -- which offers constant connections to China -- until their parents return from work late at night. This state of affairs may last two to three years for many Chinese students in Japan.
At municipal elementary and junior high schools, the Yokohama Municipal Government places specialized staff, who are generally teachers and volunteers that speak Chinese or other languages, in what are called "international classrooms." One staff is allocated if there are five foreign students, and two specialized staff when the number of foreign students reaches 20 and over. In these classes, students are given individualized remedial instruction.
However, just like a Japanese junior high school student who goes to the United States will not learn to speak English right away, a Chinese student who comes to Japan will not learn to speak the Japanese language after a mere year or two.
"Barely one student out of 20 will acquire the language before graduation," one city official said.
Yokohama is an international city that in addition to many Chinese, hosts residents from South Korea, the Philippines, and South America. Of the foreign nationals in Naka and Minami wards, in central Yokohama, many are Chinese, because of their proximity to Chinatown.
In general, the Chinese first apply for visas as married couples. After they enter the country and later make the decision to live permanently in Japan, they send for their children in China. Many of these people work as cooks, dishwashers, and waiters in Chinatown, or workers at Chinese food processing factories.
The school district where Fujimi Junior High is located covers an area called Kotobukicho, which has one of the highest concentrations of day laborers in Japan. In the past, most of Fujimi Junior High's students had been the offspring of these laborers. The general aging of the local population in recent years -- and therefore the drop in the number of local students -- overlapped with the upsurge in Chinese students.
Many of these Chinese students like Japanese manga, anime, and music, and many say they want to stay in Japan. However, because a large number of them do not understand Japanese, they say they don't want to study even though they want to learn more about Japan.
"If these students were to learn to speak Japanese and became pro-Japanese, they would become highly prized figures in the realm of Japan-China relations," says Hiroyuki Kimura of the Yokohama Association for International Communications and Exchanges (YOKE).
There are two opposing forces within the Japanese government regarding immigration. One is represented by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which calls for the aggressive recruitment of foreign nationals into the Japanese job market. The other is held by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which objects to foreign recruitment to protect Japanese workers. Chinese cooks, as well as Indonesian and Filipino nurses, come to Japan backed by the former.
I was once stationed as a reporter in France, where many Africans and immigrants from former colonies have been permitted to enter its borders. Even now, there are many Africans who would immigrate in a flash as long as someone was willing to take them in. But the willingness of France and many other European nations to accept workers from foreign countries is no longer what it used to be. They are restricting immigration to those with special skills, and even then, it has become increasingly difficult.
The integration of different cultures is a beautiful ideal. However, "labor" is not the only thing that moves when immigration takes place. It entails the movement of people and their families.
Various viewpoints exist on the pros and cons of foreign labor. Knowing full well that it is an issue with no easy answer, I urge the Japanese government to establish a basic policy. Merely setting up "international classrooms" in schools or tweaking the language used in national nursing exams for foreign nurses without instituting a basic policy is putting the cart before the horse. And if the government decides to fling open Japan's borders to foreign workers, it must treat them not as "labor," but as human beings, and provide them with a framework in which they and their families are offered social security, Japanese language instruction, and other assistance.
Yokohama has been open to foreign cultures ever since its port was opened to the outside world in the mid-19th century. There are many volunteers who speak Chinese and other languages, who assist non-Japanese speakers through various activities. Such efforts, however, do not stand a chance against the rapidity with which the foreign resident population is growing.
The teenage years can be vulnerable ones, making it particularly important to provide teenagers with personal assistance in their studies and other areas of their lives. There is a desperate need for native Chinese speakers that the Chinese junior high students, who spend their evenings on the Internet, can reach out to for advice. It's absurd that immigration laws were relaxed without Japan fully preparing for the influx of foreign nationals that has followed.
These words, spoken by a Chinese volunteer I met, have left a lasting impression on me: "Coming to Japan is one's own responsibility among adults, but when it comes to children, they absolutely need support." ("As I see it" by Satoshi Fukui, Yokohama Bureau)
July 14, 2012(Mainichi Japan)