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Night junior high schools in Japan offer chance for an education but more needed

Foreign students are divided into different proficiency levels in the "Basic Japanese" class. The class is taught by several teachers who rotate among desks at Mitsukaido Junior High School in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture, as seen in this April 30, 2021, photo. (Mainichi/Kohei Chiwaki)

TOKYO -- As of April this year, 48 local bodies in Japan had not set up public night junior high schools, even though the national government aims to establish at least one school in each of the country's 67 prefectures and ordinance-designated cities, according to a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun and other sources. So how could the few areas with night junior high schools open them?

    Public night junior high schools used to be a place of learning for those who could not attend school due to poverty or other reasons during the confusion of the post-World War II period. In recent years, the role of these schools has diversified, with an increasing number of attendees made up of foreign nationals and students who have been away from school.

    A nighttime junior high school opened from the 2020 school year at Mitsukaido Junior High School in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture, attended by 29 students in their 10s to 70s from around the city. Classes are held five days a week, with four classes per day (40 minutes per class). The school offers the same nine subjects as daytime junior high schools, including Japanese, mathematics and English, as well as moral education and comprehensive learning time.

    Of the students, 21, or 70%, are foreign nationals from 10 different countries, including Pakistan and Nepal, with Brazilians accounting for the largest number at eight. These are students who knocked on the door of the school because they were not able to get sufficient compulsory education in their home countries or in Japan.

    Batoor Iftikhar, 16, from Afghanistan entered the school with his younger sister in April. He came to Japan with his family several years ago. Due to the war, he was unable to attend elementary school in his home country, and although he went on to junior high school in Japan, he did not fit in and was often absent.

    "I want to do my best in Japanese and become a teacher of the language for children, because I had a hard time understanding it myself," he said.

    Hamid Mohammed Farhan, 17, a Bangladeshi who came to Japan in 2019, initially wanted to enter high school. However, he was told by the local government office that it was impossible to enter high school without graduating from a Japanese junior high school, so he began attending this school from April.

    "I want to learn mathematics, which I am not good at, and go on to university from high school," he said, expressing his hopes in Japanese, which he taught himself.

    Many of the eight Japanese students have been out of school for some time. Yuki Kuramochi, 22, stayed at home for about nine years, starting in May during his first year of junior high school, due to bullying he suffered in elementary school. Since April 2020, when he entered the night junior high school, he has been attending all classes.

    "All of my classes are fun. I think what I'm studying now is for the future," he says. He is now thinking of taking the high school equivalency exam.

    There are 17 teachers, and they take care to make sure that "no one is left behind." The basic principle of the school is "team teaching," with three to four teachers in a classroom, switching students according to their level of learning and Japanese proficiency. On the board, kanji characters are written with "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading, and software that automatically translates audio into text in various languages is used, along with videos.

    Hiroyuki Onozawa, a teacher in charge of mathematics, said, "Every day, we try to think of ways to make the class more interesting. This is the starting point. I would be happy if this class becomes an opportunity for them to live with confidence."

    While many local bodies are unable to take the plunge to establish night junior high schools, the Joso Municipal Government was able to set up one from the 2020 school year. The reason behind this was that the percentage of foreign residents, mainly Brazilians, was 9.6%, the highest among municipalities in the prefecture, and demand from foreigners was expected to some extent. An official of the city's board of education explained, "As a city that is committed to a multicultural, inclusive community, we decided to raise our hand (to open the school)."

    The city of Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture, which established a night school in the 2019 academic year as a branch of a municipal junior high school, also has a large number of foreign residents. Of the 65 night school students this school year, foreign nationals account for 70%, or 46 students.

    In the case of Joso, the "enthusiasm" of the teachers has helped in some ways. Together with the staff of the city's education board, they went around to kindergartens that were about to be closed to get lockers and desks for teachers and staff, and brought them to the schools. They also made their own flyers to recruit students. Through these efforts, the school has been able to reduce its expenses and use the money to purchase desks and lockers for students.

    However, there is a limit to the number of night junior high schools that municipalities can establish on their own. As a result, Kochi and Tokushima prefectures have taken the lead in opening their first prefectural schools this academic year.

    Kochi Prefecture decided to open its first prefectural night junior high school after all its municipalities expressed in a survey their reluctance to do so, citing the lack of prospects for a continuous influx of students every year and financial difficulties.

    By holding trial schools at 18 locations in the region, the prefectural government gathered feedback and accumulated evidence to assert that there are people who need night junior high schools. In the night school's first academic year, a total of 10 students in their 20s to 70s, nine Japanese and one foreign national, are studying at the school. One of the teachers said, "I can feel the strong motivation that they have been waiting for this kind of place from their attitude toward classes."

    The Tokushima Prefectural Board of Education conducted a needs survey on residents and an awareness survey on public junior high school teachers prior to the project. Of about 350 people who responded to the needs survey, 169, or about half, were interested in enrolling in a night junior high school. The age range was wide, and 85% of the respondents were Japanese. In a survey of teachers' perceptions, 70% said that the establishment of such a school was necessary.

    Unlike daytime junior high schools, there is no guarantee that new students will enter the school every year, so the challenge is to make the existence of the school known to those who need it and to create an environment where it is easy to attend such institutions.

    Onozawa said, "There must be many more people who need this school who haven't received information that such a place exists. The school will do its best to let the teachers and residents inform the target students that there is a place like this."

    (Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, Tokyo City News Department)

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