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Shiga kindergarten pilots classes with interpreter to ease integration of Brazilian kids

Children and teachers are seen playing at the Nikoniko class in Himawari Kindergarten, in Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture, on May 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Shigeto Ohzawa)

HIGASHIOMI, Shiga -- Himawari Kindergarten, a public preschool here, has begun special lessons for Brazilian children, with both a teacher and Portuguese interpreter present throughout class. The scheme, thought to be the first of its kind in a public kindergarten, aims to help children participate in lessons confident they will be able to understand in their first language and get them accustomed to Japanese, too.

"The elephant stamps its feet," some of the Brazilian girls sing the Japanese lyrics along with the music, then stamp their left feet on the floor. The class is called "Nikoniko," meaning smiles. Four 3-year-old boys and girls are running around energetically. They shout "abraco" -- hug in Portuguese -- and rush to their Japanese-Brazilian interpreter, Keiko Shimada.

The school has 302 children from infants to 5-year-olds on its register. As the preschool with the most foreign attendees in Higashiomi, 26 of the kindergartners are foreign, 22 of them Brazilian. The city itself has a foreign population of about 2.9%, higher than the prefectural average, with Brazilians making up much of that number.

The Nikoniko class is aimed at children aged 3 to 5. Currently all of its students are Brazilian, comprising five 3-year-old children who just enrolled in April, as well as three 4- to 5-year-olds who attend as necessary. Foreign children judged to have some grasp of Japanese attend standard classes.

Until the previous school year, Shimada had worked from the staffroom and was dispatched to different classes. From April 2019, she and Himawari Kindergarten teacher Maiko Sawai have been permanently based in the Nikoniko classroom.

Sawai learned some Portuguese from Shimada, too. When she wants to praise the pupils she uses phrases including "muito bom," which means "very good." "We've also gotten good at using gestures to communicate together," Sawai says. The children have become accustomed to using Japanese greeting phrases in class too. In a positive sign, Shimada said, "Many of the children tell me they don't want to go home."

Kindergarten head Hatsuyo Hiragi praised the new initiative. "Before, we had some children who would get upset and cry because they didn't understand the language. We want to bring them to a point where they can competently express what they're thinking."

Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Youth Support Center assists over 700 foreign children from 35 countries. Iki Tanaka, a manager for their children's support division, commented on the Himawari Kindergarten scheme, "I've never heard about an initiative like that in a public institution. From the perspective of the child's identity formation and preservation of their native language, it's ideal. It's also important to take care not to rush acquisition of Japanese."

(Japanese original by Shigeto Ohzawa, Osaka Editorial Division)

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