KASHIWA, Chiba -- A not insignificant number of foreign students who can't speak Japanese are leading lonely days at schools across the country. For Natsuki Ishikawa, a Chinese student in the third grade at the municipal Kashiwa Senior High School here, getting accustomed to studying in Japan came with continual confusion.
Ishikawa wanted others to understand the feelings of those placed in an environment where they can't easily communicate. To make her message heard, she entered a Japanese speech contest for high school students last year. Her piece, "The invisible wall of words," won the Minister for Foreign Affairs award, the contest's highest honor.
Her parents worked in Japan's construction sector, so Ishikawa was raised by her grandparents in China. At the speech contest, she told stories about when she was new to Japan, arriving near the end of the second year in junior high school.
One story she told took place at the start of third year, when she spoke almost no Japanese. Her teacher told her, "Please come to school tomorrow wearing white shoes." It rained heavily the following day, but Ishikawa wore the white shoes she and her mother had gone out to buy only the evening before. When she arrived, her classmates weren't wearing white shoes. It turned out the teacher had actually said "white socks," but she had misheard them. The shoes her mother had taken the trouble to get her at short notice were covered in mud. She began to cry at the thought she couldn't understand simple things.
In China, Ishikawa had many friends and good grades, but in Japan the opposite was true. She struggled to understand lessons and couldn't talk to her classmates. One time, a boy threw a pencil case at her back. When she told students that "xiexie" means "thank you" in Chinese, the people around her laughed at her.
She didn't understand the ridicule, which left her feeling sad and alone. She resolved to devote herself to learning Japanese and making friends as quickly as possible. After coming home from school, she would attend Japanese lessons and go to nearby Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, to study at junior high night school classes. In one month, she memorized the readings for 1,500 kanji characters.
One day, a volunteer Japanese teacher who taught her twice a week at junior high school gave her some advice, "You don't have to rush; taking it slowly is okay too." A boy in her class started greeting her whenever they would pass each other. It eased her anxiety to know that someone else acknowledged her. She thought that many people don't realize how someone around them can be in pain. At the same time, they don't see that they can help save someone from a hard situation.
Ishikawa went on to enroll at Kashiwa Senior High School, which puts resources into international education and teaching children whose mother tongue is not Japanese. It also sends students to Japanese speech contests.
Ishikawa cleared the Chiba Prefecture and Kanto region levels of the contest, reaching the national final. When she began her speech, tears welled up as she remembered the moments that had led up to the present moment. At the close of her five minutes, she took a deep breath and delivered her conclusion: "You don't have to rush." It's something she thinks we can say when considering how to go about international relations. For her the most important thing is to know it takes time, spent together, to thoroughly understand one another.
(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori City News Department)