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Japan ministry survey on foreign children's school attendance shows many being left behind

A Japanese-language instructor teaches the hiragana Japanese syllabary to a Pakistani boy in Shibata, Niigata Prefecture, on May 15, 2019. (Mainichi/Tomoyuki Hori)

TOKYO -- Some 17% of elementary and junior high school-age foreign children registered as residents in Japan cannot be confirmed as attending school, according to a government survey which highlights how these young people are being left behind while the country continues to accept more foreign workers to cover labor shortages.

According to the results of the education ministry's survey, out of 124,049 school-age children of foreign nationalities registered as residents across 1,741 cities, towns, villages and wards nationwide, 21,701 could not be confirmed to be attending school as of May 1. Moreover, it showed that 11,008 of them did not receive Japanese language lessons despite needing them.

"These figures should be brought close to zero. How to decrease these numbers is a challenge," said an official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

However, the direction of policy indicated by the ministry, as well as local governments' responses to the survey, do not show a clear path toward achieving that goal.

In the survey, 65.3% of local bodies responded that they have not taken any specific measures to support foreign school-age children whose school attendance they cannot confirm. In other words, over 1,100 municipal governments across the country have failed to confirm the circumstances surrounding foreign school-age children who are not going to school.

Additionally, local governments are believed to have failed to investigate the situations of 9,886 of the 21,701 children who they cannot confirm were attending school.

"We don't know what these children are doing. Their situation is unknown to us," said the ministry official. "We've repeatedly asked local bodies to get a grasp of the situation of foreign children's school attendance, but many haven't complied because these children's parents and guardians have no obligation to send their kids to school."

Some local governments hold the central government responsible for the situation. An official at one of them rebutted the education ministry's argument that local bodies should conduct investigations into foreign school-age children who cannot be confirmed to be attending school.

"The basic cause of this situation where it is unclear if many school-age children of foreign nationality are going to school is down to the national government not recognizing their parents and guardians' obligation to send their children to school," said the official.

However, local governments do not have enough human resources to look after children of foreign nationalities. "We don't have the leeway to confirm the circumstances of children who don't attend school," a local government official said. "Even if we accept them, we don't have the staff available who can teach Japanese," another said.

Some local governments are taking specific measures to ensure school-age foreigners attend school.

In 1998, the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyohashi, central Japan, home to many foreign workers, launched a probe into the situation of foreign children's school attendance. It confirmed there were some 400 Japanese-Brazilian children of elementary and junior high school age in the city, and that 25% of elementary school-age children and 45% of junior high school-age children were not attending school.

Currently, if foreign children of school-age move into the city, municipal government officials and interpreters visit the children's homes and introduce them to local public schools and schools for foreign nationals. As of autumn last year, all 1,522 elementary and junior high school-age foreign children in the city were attending school.

The Aichi Prefecture city of Nishio began a similar survey in 2009. Over a 4 1/2-year period up to autumn 2018, the municipal government confirmed 32 school-age children of foreign nationality who were not attending school. In response, the city set up a special class, "Kibou," ("Hope") to teach them Japanese and take them for tours of local schools to help them start attending.

"It comes from steady efforts, but if children start attending school, their parents will begin interacting with their neighborhoods, and it will have a good effect on local communities," said a city official managing Kibou.

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama and Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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