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Chinese boy finds Japanese language education, hope in juvenile detention center

A Chinese boy pores over his Japanese language notebook as he faces a whiteboard bearing the Japanese hiragana syllabic alphabets the Kurihama Reformatory School in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Nov. 5, 2018. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

YOKOSUKA, Kanagawa -- In a classroom with windows closed in by red iron bars and posters of the 50 letters of the hiragana syllabic alphabet, a Chinese boy said in halting Japanese, "No matter what I am asked, I don't understand Japanese. I can't answer. I prayed that no one would call out to me."

This is Kurihama Reform School, a juvenile detention center in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo. Unable to find his place at school, the boy had stopped attending and had ended up committing a crime. No one in the administration of either the local government or the school had lifted a finger to help.

It was the beginning of 2015 when the boy came to Japan, when he was a third year student in junior high school. He had asked his father, a Chinese national who had been working in Japan for over 10 years, to bring him to Japan to live with him. "I wanted to study in Japan and seek out my future," the boy said.

Because he could not speak Japanese when he arrived, however, he was dropped one year in school and entered a Japanese junior high school as a second year student. He took a Japanese language class with a boy from another class who had also come from China. The teacher in charge of the two boys could not speak Chinese. All the boy understood were the five Japanese vowels -- a, i, u, e, o. During their language class, the other student, who had come to Japan slightly earlier, would interpret for him in clumsy Japanese.

Aside from the class he took with the other Chinese student, the boy took all the same classes as his Japanese counterparts. There were no other Chinese students, and all he could do was stare at the words written on the blackboard in silence. Unable to make his opinions known, the distance between him and his classmates only widened.

After two months, he stopped going to school. When his father received a call asking why his son stopped attending, he lied and said he "couldn't wake up in the morning." However, "The truth was that I didn't understand anything and it was boring," the boy said.

Before summer vacation during the first semester of the 2015 academic year, he requested that his name be taken off the junior high school's enrollment list. Consulting with his father, he decided to get a graduation certificate from the junior high school in China that he had been about to graduate from, and take the high school entrance exams for the next academic year.

On the day he dropped out, his homeroom teacher said something to him in Japanese with a worried look on their face. But he did not understand a word of it.

After dropping out, he began going out to a shopping and entertainment district almost every evening with a boy one year older than him that he had met at the Japanese language school he had been attending since he enrolled in junior high. His father, with whom he was living with for the first time in 10 years, was busy with his own work and would only return to their residence in the middle of the night. Without much conversation between father and son, the boy could no longer handle the loneliness of being by himself in the apartment. He soon stopped going to the Japanese language class too.

"When I don't understand what someone says, my friends would just tell me in Chinese. I don't need Japanese anymore," he thought. Somewhere along the way, his dream when he first arrived in Japan had vanished. Without moving on to high school, his enrollment status became unknown to the authorities. Over 500 children of foreign citizenship live in his town. However, of the status of foreign children registered as residents but not clearly attending school, the municipal government didn't investigate because "it is not compulsory" for foreign children to attend elementary and junior high school, and there has been no administrative handling of the issue.

In the winter of 2017, the boy was arrested for robbery and causing injury in an incident where his friends assaulted another Chinese man over money lending. At the start of 2018, he entered Kurihama Reformatory School. A month later, his father came to visit him with his mother who lived in China in tow. "Let's rebuild a life for the three of us once more." The words of his parents stung in his chest.

Kurihama reformatory is currently the only facility in Japan with an "international department" for juvenile offenders of foreign nationality. Along with lessons in the Japanese language, the students also learn Japanese culture and customs -- and even the rules for how to sort and put out the trash.

Once the boy's understanding of the language expanded, so did the scope of his interests. He's read the bestselling novel "How Do You Live?" over and over. In the future, he hopes to open his own e-commerce website.

"I didn't understand Japanese and I didn't have a single goal," he said. But what allowed him to work toward his future once again was finally learning the language here at the juvenile facility.

"I want to keep studying without giving up," he said, the soft sunlight that filtered into the classroom fell on an open notebook of Japanese that he had memorized. "If I learn Japanese, my future will definitely change."

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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