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Vietnamese student's private Japanese classes deemed school attendance in national first

Nguyen Dinh Minh Khang, left, is seen studying Japanese at Trebol Nihongo in Kanazawa Ward, Yokohama, on Nov. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

YOKOHAMA -- A public junior high school here treated the time a Vietnamese student spent at private Japanese classes as part of his official school attendance in the 2020 academic year in what is thought to be a first in Japan.

    Hodogaya Junior High School in Yokohama made the move to support children with parents of foreign nationality and other pupils with connections abroad in need of help learning Japanese. According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the measures is "a progressive initiative without precedent across the country." And as a result, 15-year-old Nguyen Dinh Minh Khang finished the 2020 school year with a perfect attendance record to cap of his final year of junior high, before going on to his first-choice of high school.

    There are many cases of children with roots abroad being called over to Japan by parents already in the country, and they often attend schools here without fully understanding Japanese. Some cannot follow their lessons, and their grades suffer; they can also struggle to fit in in class, and may even stop attending.

    Khang was brought over to Japan in August 2019 by his stepfather, Kosuke Tsutsui, 47, who works in the country, and his Vietnamese mother. He enrolled at Hodogaya Junior High School, but up until that point he'd had almost no opportunities to use Japanese, and found himself perplexed by the incomprehensible words he heard exchanged at school. Khang started to feel anxious about going to school.

    "If it stays like this, he'll be left behind in his lessons," Tsutsui remembered thinking. Believing that something must be done, he went looking for an educational facility that would teach his stepson all academic subjects; not just Japanese. In December that year he found Trebol Nihongo, a Japanese language school run by Tokyo-based language education company Nihongo.

    In Spanish, "trebol" means "clover." The school is run with the hope that helping children with roots abroad learn Japanese will pave the way for their participation in society and happiness. Classes are limited to a few pupils each to adapt to their abilities, allowing the school to adjust the amount and difficulty of the work accordingly.

    In January 2020, Khang began attending Trebol Nihongo in Yokohama's Kanazawa Ward twice a week. There, he would study Japanese from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Because he was also receiving support in his school lessons, his understanding of Japanese and school subjects palpably improved. He recalls that he started understanding the meanings of the words gradually, not just being able to read them.

    A notebook Nguyen Dinh Minh Khang uses to study at Trebol Nihongo is seen on Nov. 5, 2020, in Kanazawa Ward, Yokohama. Definitions of English words are seen written in it in Japanese. (Mainichi/Kaho Kitayama)

    The number of kanji characters he could write also increased, and he began to show a more active attitude to learning. Then, Tsutsui approached Hodogaya Junior High School about whether it would consider treating Khang's days at the Japanese classes towards his official school attendance.

    In April 2020, following the discussions, the school decided that "because of his work at the Japanese language classes, a positive effect on his study has also emerged," and entered an agreement with Trebol Nihongo to consider the lessons as time in attendance. Principal Tomoaki Kubota explained, "When we considered what is necessary for him to become independent, we thought it would be a plus for him to have a place where he can study Japanese."

    The initiative was facilitated by Yokohama Municipal Government guidelines that state children not attending regular public school who go to alternative free schools and other private educational facilities can be treated as attending. The guidelines themselves are based on advisories issued by the education ministry in October 2019 to secure educational opportunities for students not going to school despite being enrolled. The guideline, titled "Regarding ways to support absentee students," allows principals to use their discretion to designate lessons at private educational facilities as time in class.

    The ministry guidelines were drawn up primarily with Japanese students in mind, but as of May 2018 there were 12,331 pupils in public junior high schools nationwide considered "in need of Japanese language instruction." If the guidelines are applied more to children with roots abroad, the scope of Japanese language instruction will also broaden.

    Regarding the actions taken at Hodogaya Junior High School, the ministry's Student Affairs Division expressed the view that "if a principal has judged the student to be non-attending and if instruction (at a Japanese classroom) is carried out in such a way as to smooth the student's return to school, then there is no issue" with applying the guidelines to children with foreign backgrounds.

    In February, Khang was accepted to his first-choice of public high school in Yokohama, via a special allocation for Kanagawa Prefecture residents of foreign nationality. Although he spent 68 days studying at Trebol Nihongo, he wasn't marked absent from school for any of those days. And though Trebol cost about 50,000 yen (about $460) a month, Tsutsui said he was thankful that the lessons allowed Khang to have a positive attitude towards his study as well as a life in Japan.

    Khang has been in Japan for about a year and a half now. He said with a flash in his eye, "I don't know yet what my dreams for the future will be, but I want to work hard on the studies in front of me now."

    (Japanese original by Nao Ikeda, Yokohama Bureau)

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