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Foreign teachers in Japan face discriminatory treatment, glass ceiling at public schools

Zainichi Korean teachers call for the elimination of discriminatory treatment of teachers based on nationality, at the Members' Office Building of the House of Councillors in Tokyo on Aug. 5, 2022. (Mainichi/Keisuke Kawazu)

TOKYO -- Foreign teachers at public schools in Japan have been forced to endure different treatment from that of their Japanese counterparts. This comes despite administrative authorities and schools advocating a "multicultural and inclusive society" in Japan, home to some 2.8 million foreign residents who have supported our society together with Japanese citizens.

    Faced by this "nationality barrier," foreign teachers are rising up to eliminate the mistreatment because their workplace is precisely where they teach children to "eradicate discrimination."

    "If teachers themselves backed away from the issues of discrimination and prejudice, could they actually resolve bullying and other problems? We would also be setting a bad example for children," said Kim Yongtaerang, 48, a Zainichi Korean resident of Japan teaching at a public junior high school in one of central Tokyo's 23 wards.

    On Aug. 5, Kim and other Korean teachers from different parts of Japan visited the Members' Office Building of the House of Councillors in Tokyo, together with citizens group members. They were having direct talks with education and foreign ministry officials to call for the elimination of discriminative treatment based on nationality.

    Under Japanese laws, there are no provisions limiting foreign residents' right to become local public servants. However, many local governments bar foreign residents from sitting employment exams for those agencies or limit their appointment to managerial posts or specific job categories.

    In regard to regular teachers at public schools, the education ministry issued a notice in 1991 urging that doors be opened for foreign nationals' employment across the country. However, that same notice also included descriptions that would solidify discriminatory treatment against foreigners. Specifically, the notice disallowed the appointment of foreign teachers to managerial posts and called for distinguishing them from Japanese "teachers" by limiting foreign nationals to the position of "full-time instructors without a term."

    Consequently, foreign teachers, even if they pass the same exams as those sat by their Japanese counterparts, have been hindered from promotions or pay hikes based on their experiences and abilities, even if their job descriptions are no different from those of their Japanese counterparts, including stints as homeroom teachers.

    This state of affairs has come under international scrutiny. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued an advisory in 2018, calling for the Japanese government to rectify the situation.

    -- Japanese government using 'principle of law' as a shield

    The national government, however, has not moved to review the status quo. There were reportedly no positive responses in the Aug. 5 negotiations with education and foreign ministries.

    The government's position is based on a view called "the natural principle of law" regarding national public servants, put forward by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau in 1953. This position dictates that government employees involved in the exercise of public authority and formation of the will of the state need to have Japanese nationality. This principle has been extended to cover local government employees as well. However, critics have claimed that the legal basis for and the scope of interpretation of this principle are unclear.

    Hiroshi Tanaka, a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University who is versed in human rights issues involving foreign residents in Japan, noted, "Article 3 of the Labor Standards Act prohibits employers from using nationality as a basis for discriminatory treatment against workers. It is beyond the reach of reason that 'the natural principle of law,' which is not even a law, is given priority."

    Meanwhile, responses to children with foreign roots have become a pressing issue at schools across the country. According to the education ministry, there were some 58,000 children requiring Japanese language lessons as of May 2021, of which 47,000 children were of foreign nationality. The figure had jumped roughly 1.7 times from a decade before.

    In prefectures and municipalities home to many foreign residents, there is a growing need to secure human resources that can respond to multicultural and inclusive education. The Gifu and Aichi prefectural governments have adopted employment exams that include evaluations of the applicants' abilities in Portuguese, Chinese and other foreign languages.

    Even though such moves have spread, the precarious position of foreign teachers has largely been left unattended.

    A book titled "Koritsu gakko no gaikokuseki kyoin" (Foreign teachers at public schools), published in 2021 by Akashi Shoten, points out that, while the government "relies on foreigners for internationalization and globalization of education as necessary, it makes no effort to squarely face up to the issues involving their professions or treatment."

    Tomoko Nakajima, a former university professor and one of the co-authors of the book, commented, "A diverse range of people including foreigners, those with disabilities and sexual minorities make up regional communities. Public schools are a microcosm of those communities, and it should be only natural for schools to have teachers with various backgrounds. Is it desirable for children and teachers to learn and teach in an environment that casts out minorities?"

    (Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, Editorial Board)

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