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Japanese language teacher shortages fueling foreign kids' special education enrolment

A child of foreign nationality is seen trying to work out an arithmetic problem during a special education lesson in Ueno-nishi Elementary School in Iga, Mie Prefecture, on Oct. 22, 2018. Image partially modified. (Mainichi/Haruna Okuyama)

IGA, Mie -- Amid problems with the provision of Japanese language education, many children of foreign nationality who attend regular classes at public Japanese schools don't understand the content of the lessons.

Rather than leaving their children in a position without support, some parents are opting to have their kids placed in special education classes, where they can receive more focused attention in smaller groups. The trend appears to be one of the causes for foreign students' higher enrollment rates in the classes compared to Japanese students.

The city of Iga in Mie Prefecture, central Japan, lies between Nagoya and Osaka. It's a convenient location for transit, and many manufacturing plants are based in the area. A sizeable cohort of Peruvian and Brazilian workers of Japanese descent are based in the city too, and its foreign population stands at around 6%.

At the municipal Ueno-nishi Elementary School in Iga, more than 60 of its 711 students are foreign nationals. Of them, more than 10%, seven students, are in special education. In total, 47 students in the school are enrolled in the classes.

"Do you know 'speed per minute'?" asks Kayoko Morikawa, a special education instructor, to a sixth grade student of Brazilian nationality. After thinking it over, he says, "How fast you walk in a minute." Today's lesson is an arithmetic problem. He has to calculate whether he could catch up by bicycle and hand an item to his father, who has forgotten it at home but is already on his way to the station.

Morikawa reads the question aloud slowly. To provide concrete examples of what is being discussed, she puts pictures on the board of a dad, a child riding a bicycle, and a road leading from a house to a train station. Her methods are part of visualization techniques commonly used in other special education classes.

"Children who have roots abroad tend to misunderstand the meaning of words even if they speak fluently," said Morikawa. As she described, the boy, who arrived in Japan before enrolling at the school, has no issue talking, but doesn't solve the math problem correctly during the 45 minute lesson.

At Ueno-nishi Elementary School, special education lessons are categorized by the kind of impairment students have, and are split into nine different classes. For each class, an individual instructor is dispatched. The Brazilian boy is in a class of six pupils, the other five of whom are Japanese.

Furthermore, the system of Japanese language instruction at the school could not be called sufficient. Three teachers take charge of Japanese language education, two working full time and one part-time. With over 60 foreign students at school, they're only able to provide support for those who are in serious need of help.

The school's principal, Kiyosato Iwasaki, admitted, "We're not able to fulfill the needs of all the students who require Japanese language education."

At the school, very few children have been able return from receiving special education classes to attend regular lessons with their Japanese peers, and in the last two years none have made the change back. Iwasaki said, "They're able to receive education from smaller size classes in special education, and we don't really get requests from parents of foreign children enrolled in those classes asking for them to go back to regular classrooms."

Yutaka Kiyonaga, an expert on developmental difficulties for foreign children and a representative director of nonprofit organization Adjust, based in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, said, "Children who are receiving Japanese language education fundamentally should be returning to regular classrooms if they have acquired Japanese.

"The choice to study Japanese in special education classes due to a shortage of Japanese language teachers is also there, but it's important to create a framework that enables these students to then return to regular classes once they have acquired the language."

(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Department)

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