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Central Japanese city offers hope to foreign kids by encouraging school attendance

Anastasia Megumi studies at her home in the city of Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, on Oct. 21, 2018. She likes math and English. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

NISHIO, Aichi -- Municipal officials of this central Japan city are working to encourage students of foreign nationalities to attend school by offering something they often lack -- hope.

Utilizing a support facility named "Kibou," or hope in Japanese, the officials succeeded in providing schooling for dozens of foreign children so far. "We want this place to be a bridge connecting kids not in school and educational institutes," said one official. "We want this to be a place where we can provide hope to those children."

A recent Mainichi Shimbun survey found that some 16,000 children of foreign citizenship residing in Japan are potentially not receiving an education. Some hesitate to go to Japanese elementary or junior high schools because they are concerned about conditions there, such as the language barrier and potentially hostile classmates.

Nishio has some 9,400 registered foreign residents, making up about 5 percent of the total population of some 172,000. Many Brazilians of Japanese descent began to settle here to work at local automobile component manufacturers following a 1990 immigration law revision that provided for working visas. The foreign population has since diversified to include 44 nationalities, including Philippine and Vietnamese, and elementary or junior high school-age children number around 700 today.

Kimie Kawakami explains textbooks to children not attending school at the Kibou educational support facility, in Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, on Jan. 17, 2019. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

In Japan, elementary and junior high education is compulsory for Japanese nationals. Foreign children, however, are not covered by this requirement, and some local governments do not take measures to encourage these children to attend public schools. Some stay home for a variety of reasons, losing vital opportunities to receive an education to build their future careers.

The Nishio Municipal Government began checking on the school attendance of foreign children in 2009. This was when the number of children attending Brazilian schools saw a sharp decrease due to the global economic crisis after the collapse of the U.S. Lehman Brothers investment bank the previous year. Many children had to stay at churches after their families became unable to pay rent.

Faced with this crisis, municipal officials began making lists of children who were registered as residents, but not going to school. They then carried out home visits, and found 32 children out of school over a four and a half year period up to fall 2018. However, only one of the children had started to attend classes. Many of the children were also concerned about their school life, because they could not speak Japanese or were afraid of possible bullying.

In response, the municipal government in 2014 named an existing support facility for foreign children "Kibou," and made it the hub of activities for encouraging their school attendance. The city also began Japanese language and culture classes and promoted exchanges between kids not attending school and those who were already attending in a bid to ease their concerns.

Anastasia Megumi, 15, is one of Kibou's success stories. A fourth-generation Japanese, she came to Japan in the spring of 2017 from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She joined her parents in Nishio who were working at an auto-related company. In Indonesia, she attended a school based on Islamic teachings. After she came to Japan, Megumi stayed home for the first one and a half years. Her parents did not send her to school, saying that she would eventually be sent back to Indonesia. Instead of school, Megumi took care of her younger brother and helped with household chores. Worried Kibou staffers visited her and proposed that they "study together." She began attending Kibou sessions for children not attending school.

An avid reader, Megumi's academic performance improved rapidly. "She can play a big role outside the home," a staffer repeatedly told her parents. Eventually, they listened, and Megumi enrolled in a local junior high school as a third-year student last autumn.

Still, other foreign children continue to live secluded at home. With no law requiring their attendance and their parents' refusal to send them, it presents a difficult issue for municipal governments to overcome. But the staff of Kibou is not discouraged, and visits families again and again, conveying the importance of education. When they cannot meet with the children directly, the support workers leave a letter written in six languages that reads, "If you have any questions about school, we can help you. Please contact us."

"When children begin to attend school, their parents begin to interact with the local community as well," said Kimie Kawakami, who is responsible for operating Kibou. "Helping them to live fulfilling lives will surely be positive for this community."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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