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Education board surveys make difference in lives of foreign kids not attending school

Cielou, center, plays cards with her classmates at a Japanese-language class for children who just arrived in Japan from abroad, in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, on Nov. 8, 2018. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

MATSUSAKA, Mie -- While the status of school enrollment for over 16,000 children of foreign nationality remains unknown, it has become clear that there is a difference in interest from municipality to municipality in conducting surveys to confirm the situation of the children.

Last October, in an apartment in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, in central Japan, a Filipino brother and sister not attending school were found. Overwhelmed by the anxieties of their life in Japan, the two had stopped attending classes. They had done their best to push the thoughts of school from their minds, staying in the house and passing the time playing video games. The reason they were finally enrolled in school once more was because of a municipal survey.

On an early October evening, Xander Chicote, 12, and his 8-year-old sister Cielou were engrossed in video games in their room as usual. Without any conversation between the two, they were each hunched over their own smartphone, eyes locked on the screens. That was when the doorbell rang.

When their father Lawrence, 44, opened the door, there was a man standing outside who asked, "Are there any school-aged children living here?" The man was Naoki Nishiyama, a supervisor from the Matsusaka Municipal Board of Education, who had come to survey the status of children not enrolled in school.

"Do you remember me?" In fact, three years earlier, Nishiyama had taught Xander, who was only a third grader at the time, Japanese, when the siblings had come to Japan the first time. After only nine months, they had returned to their home country. Still, Xander, who had been stone-faced until that point, broke into a smile.

The siblings lived together with their parents and their 18-year-old brother. Lawrence is a third-generation Japanese Filipino, and he came to work in Japan in 2007. He and his wife Jocelyn, 38, work together as dispatch laborers at factories that manufacture automobile parts and other locations. Last April, they brought their three children, who had been living with relatives, to Japan so that they could live together as a family again.

While still in the Philippines, Xander had put all of his energy into playing basketball. Cielou, who loved to dance, imitated the steps to pop song dances. However, their new apartment in Japan was small, and they could no longer play around freely. Having forgotten how to speak Japanese, venturing outside was also a scary thought. They wanted to go back home to the Philippines. In order to deal with their anxiety, the two turned to gaming.

With both parents working, the house was empty close to 15 hours a day. The siblings began to say that they did not want to go to school. Their parents wanted to convince them to go to school, but were unaware that they could call on the municipal authorities for support. Time passed without parents and children coming to an agreement.

It was at the beginning of October that Nishiyama looked over the list of foreign names lined up on the list of children whose enrollment status was unknown. Following the increase of foreign laborers in Matsusaka since the 2000s, it was decided as the city's education policy to conduct surveys of children with foreign citizenship who were residents but not at school. Beginning in 2009, board of education officials began canvassing the houses where each child was listed as living, one at a time. On that list was Xander. He had come again to Japan in April, and yet he had not been going to school.

At the beginning of November when the day to return to school came along, Xander enrolled in the sixth grade. As for Cielou, who would be in the second grade, it was decided to enroll her in the board's special morning Japanese-language classes for children who have just arrived in Japan.

Even with her parents at her side, Cielou shyly tried her best to avoid eye contact with those around her. Unable to react to a call to stand up, she stood with prompting from her mother. But while she was playing with beanbags with the staff, her face lit up.

At the end of class, she had to introduce herself in Japanese. While shyly hiding her face behind a folder, she slowly said, "I came from the Philippines." Her parents looked on happily.

Lawrence decided to quit his job until both children adjust to going to school. He walks them to and from school and helps them with their homework. Now, the apartment is filled with Japanese greetings of "good morning" and "see you later." Xander even made four new friends already.

Including the Chicote siblings, there were 27 other children surveyed whose school enrollment status had been unknown in Matsusaka. Of them, 19 children have already returned to their home countries. There are still six children remaining with no record of having left the country, but more than three visits to their homes to meet the children have been unsuccessful.

"I hope that we are able to make sure that all children who are supposed to be receiving an education are able to do so," Nishiyama said.

(Japanese original by Haruna Okyuama, City News Department)

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