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Foreign student sees hope for future with newly found Japanese language support

Sarocha Yatsushiro, right, receives Japanese-language instruction from her teacher Eiko Tobo, responding to questions in Japanese, in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in March 2019. (Mainichi/ Tomoyuki Hori, image partially modified)

SHIMONOSEKI, Yamaguchi -- It has emerged that over 10,000 foreign children attending public schools in Japan have been deemed in need of Japanese language education but aren't receiving support -- a fact that has shed light on the lack of teachers.

One city that has seen such a lack of teachers is Shimonoseki in the western Japan prefecture of Yamaguchi. As the few non-Japanese children needing support are dispersed over a wide area, there is no budget to bring in dedicated language teachers.

In September 2018, an email arrived at a class in Shimonoseki where volunteers taught conversational Japanese to foreigners.

"I have a daughter in junior high school who came from Thailand. She can't speak Japanese and doesn't know what to do," the email read.

In need of help was 15-year-old Sarocha Yatsushiro. At school she was copying Japanese on the blackboard into her notebook but didn't understand what she was writing.

Although Sarocha's school had judged that she was in need of Japanese language education, she had no access to a dedicated teacher.

Sarocha's Thai mother, who is 35, remarried a Japanese man, Tetsuya, 47, when Sarocha was in her fourth year of elementary school. Because Sarocha couldn't speak Japanese, she lived with her grandmother in Thailand at first, but she missed her mother, so in April 2017, when she was in her second year of junior high school, she came to Japan.

Tetsuya discussed Sarocha's Japanese language education with the Shimonoseki Municipal Government, but officials told him, "We don't have any instructors who can teach her." The teen entered junior high school a year below her actual level to make it easier to keep up. She desperately copied the words her teacher wrote on the blackboard. The teacher, meanwhile, added the readings of kanji characters to Sarocha's notebook, and provided explanations to Sarocha using self-learned Thai, but Sarocha's Japanese didn't improve.

"I didn't understand what the teacher was saying and all I could do was sit in the classroom," she said.

Tetsuya worried about her, and for a year and a half urged the municipal government to do something about her Japanese language education. The city asked the prefectural government to provide a specially placed teacher, but possibly because the number of students without support was small, no funding was set aside.

In the 2018 academic year, there were 11 students at seven elementary and junior high schools in the city who were judged to be in need of Japanese-language education, like Sarocha. Of these, eight were not receiving any support.

It was around this time that Tetsuya came across a Japanese-language class in the city. Eiko Tobo, a 45-year-old part-time teacher at Baiko Gakuin University in Shimonoseki, started helping Sarocha. Hearing about her situation, Tobo volunteered to teach Sarocha twice a week after school. Through a test, the teacher found that Sarocha couldn't even understand passages for fifth-grade elementary school students, and that she couldn't read what she had copied from the blackboard in school.

Before proceeding with her study, the teacher told Sarocha to first use a smartphone app to translate Japanese words into Thai to understand their meaning. The benefits of the lessons gradually started to appear, and after half a year Sarocha happily commented that she could understand about half of the lessons.

Tobo continues to see a stream of students of foreign nationalities. In April this year, the parent of a boy in his first year of junior high school who had had no Japanese instruction and was struggling with reading and writing in the language came to her, saying, "I want you to help children at school who are in the same situation as my son."

Tobo describes her task with enthusiasm. "The education people receive as children has a big impact on their lives. Adults have to do more."

This spring, Sarocha entered her third year of junior high school. She now wants to become a schoolteacher. On the wall of her classroom are her New Year's aspirations.

"I can't study that much. I want to try hard with my study and go to a good high school," she wrote.

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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