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Foreign student flourishes in school Japanese scheme, but resources uneven nationally

Rie Sato, right, and Ianys Ramirez study from a Japanese language class textbook together on March 8, 2019, at Hirose Elementary School in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

TOKYO -- Vital language education for foreign children studying in Japanese public schools varies hugely by area. After two years in a neighborhood without enough international pupils for dedicated resources, Ianys Ramirez, 10, spoke only fragmented Japanese. But a move to a school with special language classes helped him flourish to the point of composing essays.

It's September 2018 in the Japanese classroom at Hirose Elementary School in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. In today's lesson, students write their thoughts about a newspaper cutting they've received. Ramirez looks intently at his, a picture of a turtle resting in a tree's shade. He grips his pencil. After a few moments, he writes "Cute," "Turtle," "Leaves." Despite two and a half years in Japan, it takes all his effort to produce simple words.

Ramirez's father is Japanese Peruvian, his mother is Romanian. They met working at a factory in the northern Kanto region and married in 2006. Between ages 5 and 7, Ramirez was sent to live with his grandparents in Peru, speaking Spanish at home. Returning to Japan in the second grade, he lived in Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, an area with a sparse foreign pupil population. There, he enrolled at a local elementary school.

To help Ramirez at school, a Spanish speaking Japanese language teacher was dispatched to interpret lessons. Tests were translated for him too, and he even got full marks, but his Japanese didn't improve.

Eriko Ishii, head of the Society for Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language and a professor at Tokyo Woman's Christian University, shed light on why. "In the same way that watching a foreign film with subtitles doesn't mean you learn that language, receiving interpretation is not learning Japanese."

In April 2018, Ramirez's family moved house. He transferred to Hirose Elementary School, where foreign nationals comprise 20% of the student body. Every day, for one to two hours, he attended Japanese classes there. At first he could write the syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, but his pronunciation was unclear. Rie Sato, a teacher responsible for Japanese education at the school, had him recite the basic vowel sounds, pushing him to learn the language without relying on Spanish.

Initiatives where students leave normally scheduled lessons to attend language classes at school are called Special Needs Education measures by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The practice is encouraged, but according to an academic 2016 national investigation by the ministry, of the 43,947 pupils who needed language classes at the time, only 14,018 were receiving them. In Toride, where Ramirez lived, no public schools have introduced the lessons due to a low and dispersed foreign student population, which makes retention of qualified teachers difficult.

In March 2019, a year after Ramirez's school transfer, he started trying to compose essays in Japanese. About six months earlier, he'd recounted his time in the Toride school in slow, hesitant Japanese. But now, writing about guide dogs after a discussion with his teacher, his progress was plain to see: "Blind people can't see if a door is closed, or the gap between the train and the platform. So it's important for guide dogs to let their owner know when a door is open, or when there's a gap."

Now a fifth grader, Ramirez says he wants to make lasting friendships, and that it spurs him to improve his Japanese. "In life, you can always learn new things. So, I love life. There are many surprises," he said.

Special Needs Education measures

In accordance with the School Education Act, the measures are intended to provide special education for pupils attending public elementary, junior high and high schools who are in some way disadvantaged. Since April 2014, their jurisdiction has been extended to Japanese language education for foreign national students.

Teachers are expected to devise the scheme's framework themselves. Following approval from the school's principal, they then notify the municipal government of the measures and put them into practice. In reality, staff shortages mean only about 30% of schools enact the programs.

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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