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Education group seeks funds to help foreign kids in Japan whose parents lost jobs to virus

Children aged under six are seen learning Portuguese in a classroom at Mirai in the central Japan city of Kikugawa, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Yukina Furukawa)

KIKUGAWA, Shizuoka -- A nonprofit organization here that holds Japanese language classes for Brazilian nationals has been collecting donations to secure educational opportunities for children as many foreign workers are being laid off amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

    Mirai, a facility in the city of Kikugawa, Shizuoka Prefecture, that offers day care services and educational assistance has seen a drastic drop in its number of students as parents have not been able to pay monthly fees due to unemployment. The group that runs the facility aims to raise money through crowdfunding so that the children will be able to return to Mirai -- a valuable spot where children who seek to enter Japanese public schools can learn the language.

    In the classroom of Mirai, set up in a house in a quiet residential area in Kikugawa, a teacher was seen holding up a small liquid glue bottle while asking "Do we call this 'small' or 'big'?" The energetic voices of children answering, "It's small!" echoed in the room during this exchange that took place in mid-October.

    Chairman Kiyoshi Ochi, 57, a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian used personal funds to establish Mirai in 2017. The organizing body manages a day care center that teaches the Portuguese and Japanese languages to children aged below six, and offers Japanese language and cultural education to schoolchildren aged between 6 and 12 to help them adapt to public schools, among other services. Over 300 kids have been able to attend public schools through the group's efforts. The day care center also provides children with breakfast and lunch.

    Over 90% of parents whose children go to the facility are dispatch workers at factories and other places. The novel coronavirus has had a massive impact on the lives of such families. Inquiries from parents saying things like "I can't send my child from tomorrow because I was fired," have been made repeatedly since around late March, and 50 people, or 60% of enrolled children, dropped out temporarily. Public relations representative Saori Viana commented, "When learning comes to a stop, the acquisition of language slows down. The children may not be able to adapt to schools in Japan, and may stop going even if they get to enter."

    Employment conditions seem to have gradually recovered since autumn, but 20 children have not yet returned to class. Mirai has decided to put its faith in crowdfunding in order to guarantee learning opportunities for children who have quit going to class against their own will due to their parents' unemployment. The organization set a target of collecting 1.16 million yen (about $11,000), which is equivalent to monthly tuition fees for 20 people, enabling the children to attend the facility free of charge. Chairman Ochi said, "I created the facility with the desire to reduce the number of foreign kids who are isolated from society. I'd like to ask for your cooperation."

    Meanwhile, the organization behind Mirai relies on the monthly fees for its operations, and has accumulated debts totaling 16 million yen (about $151,840) due to a decrease in student attendance. However, Mirai cannot rely on public assistance and is facing financial difficulties. Kelly Umezaki, a resident of Kikugawa whose 5-year-old daughter goes to the facility, said, "I work in a vehicle parts factory. I won't be able to go to work if Mirai gets closed down."

    Donations can be made through the designated webpage at: until 11 p.m. on Nov. 23.

    (Japanese original by Yukina Furukawa, Shizuoka Bureau)

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