KANI, Gifu – This mid-sized city in central Japan has been at the forefront of its efforts to find out-of-school foreign children and provide them with educational opportunities – an initiative driven largely by the passion of a researcher who has been helping children in difficulty abroad for years.
Associate Professor Yoshimi Kojima of Aichi Shukutoku University was instrumental in making Kani Municipal Government’s comprehensive visits to foreign households with children in the city. The local government started the movement and other measures to support education in the early 2000s after Kojima’s own research found that many young foreign children aged 15 and under were working illegally or becoming pregnant.
Kojima, 45, first met such out-of-school children in 1998, when she was a student at Osaka Foreign Studies University, which has now merged with the ‘Osaka University. A dozen foreign children who appeared to be between the ages of 3 and 10 were crammed into an apartment as she volunteered to help foreign victims of the Great Hanshin earthquake in western Japan.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “We are waiting for our moms and dads to come home,” replied a child in Portuguese.
Their parents were Japanese Brazilians working in a nearby food factory. She contacted local school boards in hopes of sending the children to school, but was repeatedly told that they had no authority to compel children to attend classes. Kojima learned that the constitutional obligation of compulsory education does not apply to non-Japanese nationalities.
As Kojima increasingly began to think that these children should go to school, she joined a graduate school at Osaka University and began researching them. Later, she got to know municipal officials in Kani where many foreigners live to work for various manufacturers on fixed-term contracts. As she learned about the local situation from the authorities, Kojima volunteered to start a study on these residents. She moved to Kani and started visiting foreign homes in April 2003.
The municipal education council and international exchange officials supported his efforts. She checked foreign children of school age every six months to see if they were attending school. She repeated the investigation and found that the number of out-of-school children had increased each time.
His research found that the children of newcomers to Japan did not receive an education and that some children had dropped out of school. Its investigation in the fall of 2004 revealed that it had been confirmed that up to 25 children were not attending classes. The number accounted for 6.8 percent of foreign children living in the city.
Most of the young people were between 13 and 15 years old. When asked why they weren’t going to college, one child replied, “I worked hard to learn the hiragana and katakana (phonetic) characters, but I failed the tests because I couldn’t. read questions written in kanji characters “which are more complicated and more difficult to remember.” I have never seen children (peers) go to high school. “Some children lied about their age to work in factories, while some girls in their early teens have even become pregnant.
Many of their guardians could not pay enough attention to children’s behavior because their working hours were irregular. Parents were not reluctant to educate their children, but they could not think about their children’s future when theirs was precarious and they could be made redundant at any time. “We just can’t anticipate issues like high school,” said one parent.
Based on Kojima’s study, the mayor of Kani at the time said the city would become one with “zero out-of-school children”. The researcher became the city’s first coordinator for foreign children. An elementary class for teaching the Japanese language called “Bara Kyoshitsu Kani” has opened in the city, and “international classes” in municipal primary and secondary schools have been expanded. The international exchange association has also set up an office to help ensure the education of these children. Research on foreign households and their children continued.
Kani now has some 102,200 residents, of which about 7,460 are foreigners. More than 10 years after Kani started stepping up his support for foreign children, things are now improving, according to Kojima. Some children now go to high school, find jobs and grow up to have families. Some companies hire them not as part-time workers with limited contracts, but as regular full-time employees. “We are seeing results,” Kojima said.
However, there aren’t many local organizations in Japan that make similar efforts.
“Communities in regions of the country are losing people, but they can recover and become sustainable if they can attract people from outside Japan and make them feel at home,” Kojima said. “Achieving that goal, I think, starts with raising children in school.”
(Japanese original by Haruna Okuyama, City News Service)