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Afghan kids with no Japanese or English skills present new challenges for Aomori school

Three of the Afghan students, from left, Bushra, Basnama and Abdul Rahman, are seen in their Japanese language lessons at Shimoda Elementary School in Oirase, Aomori Prefecture, on Feb. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tomoyuki Hori)
(Mainichi)

OIRASE, Aomori -- Foreign-born children aren't only found in densely populated locations. Even in rural areas, where plans for Japanese language education had previously been unnecessary, local governments are having to establish their response to increasing numbers of newly arrived students.

In spring 2018, Shimoda Elementary School in Oirase, Aomori Prefecture, which has 107 pupils, admitted five brothers and sisters in a family from Afghanistan. The children spoke neither Japanese nor English; initially unable to communicate with words, the school and students stumbled through the first stages of their education.

Located in the picturesque Oirase River region, the school received a request from the local board of education in January 2018, asking if it would accept a group of siblings. Five children from Afghanistan wanted to start attending the school, they said.

In 2008, their father, Shamsur Rahman Daulatzai*, 34, decided to come to Japan to export cars back to his home country, after hearing about a Pakistani man in Oirase who ran a used car firm. After 10 years at the company, he got his family to come and live with him in December 2017. His eldest son, Abdul Rahman, 11, said, "I was excited to be able to study in Japan."

Shimoda Elementary School's first ever foreign-born students came in 2016, when Daulatzai's colleague brought his three children over from Pakistan. They spoke English but no Japanese, allowing for some communication, but the five Afghan children didn't understand either. The school couldn't find a pocket translator compatible with Pashto, Afghanistan's official language, but their recent experience admitting the three children before led them to decide it would probably be fine, and let them enroll. The children joined in grades one to five at the school from April 2018.

Recently graduated teacher Tatsuki Ogasawara, 23, was dispatched to the school by the prefecture as a part-time instructor of the Japanese language. His teaching license is in P.E. for junior high and high school age students. "I was really unsure of where to start teaching them from," he said.

Abdul Rahman, left, is seen with his siblings as they walk from Shimoda Elementary School in Oirase, Aomori Prefecture, on Feb. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Tomoyuki Hori)

Ogasawara started with greetings. Using gestures and pictures, he said "Good morning," and lowered his head. But the five looked puzzled. They started discussing something among them in Pashto, but he didn't understand the language. Silence descended as he and the children stared at one another.

Possibly from a difference in culture, there were occasions when the children would slap and pinch their classmates when trying to get their attention. Naohiko Kumazawa, the school's vice principal, said, "Problems would arise one after another and we would deal with them as they happened."

In June 2018, the school turned its empty broadcasting room into a makeshift Japanese language classroom. From the fall second term, changes fostered by the children's increased number of Japanese language lessons taught in Japanese outside regular classes began to show. Slowly, they were able to have conversations with their classmates. They also started asking Ogasawara more questions in Japanese during classes.

Abdul Rahman entered the fifth grade in April 2019. His Japanese has improved, and he is able to join in math and social studies classes with third-grade students. "I want to learn more Japanese," he said excitedly.

But there are still many problems. Some have raised concerns that with three teachers assigned to support Japanese students with special needs helping in the Afghan children's lessons, other students aren't getting the care they need. The principal, Takumi Tsushima, explained the school's situation. "We want to do our best for them (the Afghan children) to be able to live in Japan, but we don't have enough teachers or classrooms. If the number of foreign children were to increase further, we may not be able to support them."

*Approximate English spellings.

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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