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Professor's passion driving central Japan city to promote education for foreign kids

Foreign children study the basics of the Japanese language at a class for such youngsters in the central Japan city of Kani in Gifu Prefecture on Sept. 7, 2018. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

KANI, Gifu -- This medium-sized city in central Japan has been a frontrunner in its efforts to track down foreign children out of school and offer them educational opportunities -- an initiative driven largely by the passion of a researcher helping struggling kids from overseas for years.

Associate professor Yoshimi Kojima of Aichi Shukutoku University has been instrumental in realizing the Kani Municipal Government's full visits to foreign households with children in the city. The local government started the move and other educational support measures in the early 2000s after Kojima's own research found that many young foreign children aged 15 or under were working illegally or getting pregnant.

Kojima, 45, first met such kids not going to school in 1998 when she was a student at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies, which has now merged into Osaka University. Around 10 foreign children who appeared to be aged between 3 and 10 were packed inside an apartment room when she was volunteering to help foreign victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in western Japan.

Associate professor Yoshimi Kojima expresses her views on supporting the education of foreign children during an interview in the Chikusa Ward of the central Japan city of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture on Jan. 17, 2019. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

"What are you doing?" she asked. "We're waiting for our daddies and mommies to come home," one child answered in Portuguese.

Their parents were Japanese Brazilians working at a nearby food factory. She contacted local boards of education hoping to send the children to school, but she was told repeatedly that they had no authority to make the children attend classes. Kojima learned that the constitutional obligation of compulsory education does not apply to non-Japanese nationalities.

As Kojima increasingly began to feel that those kids should be going to school, she joined a graduate school of Osaka University and started research on them. She later got acquainted with municipal officials of Kani where many foreigners live to work for a variety of manufacturers on fixed-term contracts. As she learned from the officials about the local situation, Kojima volunteered to launch a study on those residents. She moved to Kani and began visiting foreign households in April 2003.

Municipal board of education and international exchange officials supported her efforts. She checked on foreign children of schooling age every six months to see if they were attending school. She repeated the survey and found that the number of kids out of school had increased every time.

Her research found that the children of newcomers to Japan were not receiving an education, and some kids had dropped out of school. Her probe in autumn 2004 revealed that as many as 25 children were confirmed not attending classes. The number constituted 6.8 percent of foreign children living in the city.

Many of the youths were aged between 13 and 15. When asked why they were not going to junior high school, one child replied, "I worked hard to learn hiragana and katakana (phonetic) characters, but I failed tests because I couldn't read questions written with kanji characters" that are more complicated and harder to remember. "I never saw kids (peers) going to high school." Some children lied about their ages to work at factories, while some girls in their early teens even fell pregnant.

Many of their guardians could not pay enough attention to the children's behavior because their working hours were irregular. The parents were not apathetic to educating their children but they could not think about their kids' future while their own was insecure and they could be fired at any day. "We simply cannot think ahead about issues like high school," one parent said.

Based on Kojima's study, the mayor of Kani at the time declared that the city would become one with "zero children out of school." The researcher became the city's first coordinator for foreign children. An elementary class for Japanese-language education named "Bara Kyoshitsu Kani" opened in the city, and "international classes" at municipal elementary and junior highs schools were expanded. The international exchange association also set up an office to help ensure these children attend school. Research on foreign households and their children has been continuing.

Kani now has some 102,200 residents, and approximately 7,460 of them are foreigners. More than 10 years after Kani began beefing up its support for foreign children, things are looking brighter now, according to Kojima. Some children now attend high school, find jobs and grow up to have families. Some companies are hiring them not as part-time workers on limited contracts, but as full-time, regular employees. "We're seeing some results," Kojima says.

However, there are not many local bodies in Japan that are making similar efforts.

"Communities in regions across the nation are losing people, but they can turn around and become sustainable if they can attract people from outside Japan and make them feel like they are at home," says Kojima. "Achieving that goal, I think, begins with raising children at school."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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