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Tragic princess: Foreign high schoolers have slim education opportunities in Japan

On the application form for the learning support center, the box for which school Filipino high school-aged Princess was attending was left blank, as seen in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Nov. 14, 2018. (Mainichi/Tomoyuki Hori)

TOKYO -- Foreign children are not subject to Japan's compulsory education system, a fact viewed as one of the main reasons that many such youth known to their municipalities end up not enrolled in any sort of schooling.

But while elementary and junior high school is compulsory in Japan, high school is not. This means that high school-aged children with foreign citizenship have even fewer education options than younger children.

In fall 2015, a 16-year-old girl from the Philippines staring down this very problem met an untimely death in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. The girl's killer was her own mother, 39, who had been pushed to the edge by her life in Japan and developed a mental illness. The girl's name was Princess, and the stories of those who knew the mother and daughter paint a picture of two people struggling to find their place in a foreign country.

In June 2015, her mother took Princess, who had just arrived in Japan, around the area to introduce her to the other residents. "She will be living with us from now on," she had explained. Behind her smiling mother, Princess stood idly.

Princess's mother, who had been a single parent, married a Japanese man and left a still-young Princess with their relatives to head off to Japan in 2012. Aside from a sister who lived in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, Princess's mother knew no one else in the country. Unable to work, she sat alone in the house all day waiting for her husband to return from work. Deeply lonely, before long she began to have auditory hallucinations.

Princess, who was said to be good at studying, was her mother's treasured only daughter. Princess told her aunt of her two dreams: To become a lawyer in the Philippines, and to live with her mother again. When she graduated from junior high school in spring 2015, worried about her mother's condition, she made up her mind. She was going to Japan. "She must have wanted to be by her mother's side to help," her aunt said.

Princess could not speak Japanese. She told her aunt that she would study the language and go to high school, but even after arriving in Japan, she was unable to find a place where she could learn. Foreign children of elementary or junior high school age can enroll in Japanese public schools. But as high school is not compulsory, there were few places where the high school-aged Princess could go. Even if she wanted to go to a Japanese high school, she could not read the questions on the Japanese-language entrance exams. She went from place to place, turned away each time. Princess's mother would call her sister with story after story of frustration and hopelessness.

In summer 2015, mother and daughter came upon a "free school" in Yokohama, the prefectural capital of Kanagawa. The school was created to accept foreign children with nowhere else to go for an education, and there were several other pupils the same age as Princess. "I want my daughter to attend school here, too," her mother pleaded. But the school had a maximum enrollment of 30 students, and all the spots were filled. "But why can't you let her in?" She collapsed in tears, and a female staff member recommended a learning support center in Yokosuka, south of Yokohama, geared toward foreign junior high school students where she also worked as an instructor.

"I'm going to school now," Princess had announced in her newly learned Japanese to her aunt on the phone in September 2015. At the classes she attended only once a week, Princess had begun to find a place where she belonged in Japan. Then early one morning at the end of October, her aunt's cell phone rang.

"Come quickly. Mama won't sleep or eat," Princess said. Her stepfather was at work and was not answering her frantic calls. While keeping her niece on the line, her aunt quickly left her house in Gunma. On the other end, she heard Princess trying to comfort her incoherent mother. "I can't leave Mama alone," the girl repeated, periodically cutting the call. One of the several times her aunt reached Princess on the phone, she heard a pained scream and then silence. While the mother's life was saved, Princess lost her own.

The female instructor at the education support center Princess was going to learned about what had happened on the news. The girl had only been attending classes for a month. She and the instructor had made a promise to go to an information session about a high school entrance exam that would now go unfulfilled.

After the incident, a letter was found at the residence. "I'm lucky to have a mother like you," Princess had written when she graduated from junior high school. "I appreciate all (the) things you've done (for) me. Thank you Ma! I love you Mama!"

Was there really no way that the mother and daughter could have been saved? The female instructor who taught Princess continues to struggle with the question each day.

"If there had been a place that could be more involved with Princess through education, then the outcome might have been different," she said. "There are still so many children struggling."

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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