Migrant Students face hardships in Japan

By Keigo Nishio


Since the opening of Japan, Kobe, a city located in Western Japan well known for its international port has attracted people from many foreign countries. Just after the port’s opening in 1868, the city was flooded with people from Western countries (mainly traders, clergymen, and their families). In the early twentieth century, when the Japanese Imperial government proceeded with its colonial expansion,migrants who came or were forced to come from East Asia, especially China and the Korean Peninsula, flew into the city. Not a few of them remained in the city even after the war and constituted the Zainichi (literally meaning “remaining in Japan”) population. After the war, the city attracted numerous newcomer migrants from all over Asia, including China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. As of May 2018, 47,856 registered foreign residents live in the city (17,062 from the Korean Peninsula; 13,317 from China; 6,760 from Viet Nam; 1,340 from Taiwan; 1,209 from the Philippines). If you work around the city, you just might catch sight of the many foreign restaurants and general stores run by immigrants.

Foreign residents in Kobe are diverse in terms of origin, age, social status, and adjustment to Japan. The majority of contemporary Zainichi Koreans and Chinese, who are the descendants of wartime migrants and who were born, brought up, and educated in Japan, speak Japanese as their mother tongue and feel more settled in Japan than their ancestors. Many of them receive Japanese education although some choose Korean schools. One Zainichi third-generation woman (a granddaughter of wartime Korean immigrants) told me that she first learned Korean when she had to read some documents about her family line stored in Korea. Although they face serious issues such as discrimination and hate crimes, Zainichi people have fewer linguistic issues in working and learning in Japan, compared with newcomer immigrants.

In contrast to Zainichi people, newcomer immigrants, especially those who come from the non-Chinese cultural sphere, experience hardships in an early stage of adjusting to Japan. Specifically, the difficulties that migrant children face in their school environment are remarkable. This summer, I volunteered at Kobe Foreigners Friendship Centre (KFC), where I helped migrant students to review their classes and do their homework. The students  were between 12 and 15 years old and had been living in Japan for less than three years. I conversed with them almost always in Japanese (I sometimes used English when I taught them English, but I never spoke their mother tongues), often wondering whether they could make sense of what I said.

The biggest issue is that they cannot understand abstract notions in either Japanese or their mother tongue. All the students I was working with came to Japan before they finished primary education, so they did not know words like “government,” “philosophy,” or “Constitutional Law.” Translation apps cannot be helpful  to migrant students: since they have not learnt these concepts in their mother tongue, they have to understand all of them in Japanese.

Their inability to comprehend abstract terms is an obstruction to their study in multiple ways. For instance, in higher grades of primary school, students learn Chinese characters that are used to represent abstract terms. Those characters are often more complex than those which represent material things, and migrant students copy and memorize such complicated characters, without understanding their meaning . Migrant students make their best efforts, writing the same characters and phrases more than ten times, and they finally memorize almost all of them. The students often reported that they had marked more than 90 percent in their exams. However, this way of studying does not strengthen students’ vocabulary. Since Chinese characters are ideograms, words that have similar meanings often share the same character. Accordingly, whether students know the meaning of each character affects their ability to memorize words effectively and to infer the meaning of the words that they have not encountered. For migrant students to  catch up with their Japanese classmates, they have to grasp the meaning of each Chinese character .

Migrant students’ weak vocabulary of abstract terms also renders it difficult for them to use their textbooks and workbooks. Since they do not know more than a half of abstract words on their textbooks, they have no idea what they are learning about. For instance, how can they comprehend the sentence “Prince Shotoku established Japan’s first constitutional and hierarchic system in the seventh century in order to centralize the nation under the authority of the Emperor,” without knowing what is meant by “constitutional,” “hierarchic,” or “centralize?” They may look up these words in a dictionary, but its explanations usually prove too difficult for them. Accordingly, they cannot read their textbooks all by themselves even if they want to review their classes after school.

Grasping abstract terms is all the more difficult because migrant students do not hear such terms in everyday familial conversations. Their parents usually work until late at night, and therefore the students do not have time to talk about academic issues or watch news programs together with their parents. One of my students did not even know the current prime minister of Japan, and he was having great difficulty understanding Japanese politics. Such students lack both opportunities and knowledge by which to have a concrete image of Japan’s social structure.

Another problem is  that Japanese education does not itself  provide an incentive for migrant students to study hard in class. In particular , social studies, consisting of Japanese history, geography, and civics, is discouraging. For instance, in geography, students have to memorize the names of all prefectures, prefectural capitals, major mountains, rivers, and plains. Japanese history is similarly too focused on details, and students are seldom taught why they have to memorize names and words that appear on their textbooks. If you are brought up in Japan, it is not so difficult. Through everyday life, children can naturally memorize names of prefectures and mountains, and major historical events or heroes are mentioned in folk tales. As what is taught in social studies is to some extent about Japanese people’s national identity, Japanese students have little difficulty catching up with classes. In contrast, for migrant students, everything taught in social studies is new and often pointless. For migrant students, social studies is about only memorizing names and words whose importance they do not know or appreciate. As their study assistant, I had to encourage them to cram these words into their memory, but I always thought that schools must provide classes designed for migrant students where  they can practice thinking in Japanese (it is not only about linguistic skills but also academic skills that are essential to deal with abstract notions), instead of the same social studies classes that their Japanese counterparts take.

Schools are attempting to deal with the hardships with which migrant students are faced today. Kobe has a system of assigning linguistic assistants to migrant students who are bilingual in Japanese and their mother tongue. In some schools, students can participate in extracurricular activities in which migrant students can study about their mother country’s tradition, culture, and language. According to Mr. Seonkil Kim, the chief director of KFC, such systems are important assistance for students who cannot speak Japanese well and who may have difficulty making friends with their Japanese schoolmates.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kim also points to the flaws of these systems. As for linguistic assistants, he argues that they are often mere interpreters of what teachers say and can fail to take into consideration their students’ identity perspectives. In Japan, where national or ethnic homogeneity is mistakenly emphasized, migrant students are often regarded by their Japanese classmates as strange because of their non-Japanese name and appearance  . Accordingly, Mr. Kim claims, migrant students need support in order to overcome such prejudiced views from others and establish their identity as immigrants whose backbone lies both in their mother countries and in Japan. In order for assistants to help migrant students, it is important that assistants understand what it is to live as a migrant, with identity fluctuating between one’s home country and Japan. Nonetheless, not all assistants fulfil this quality. Appointment of assistants based simply on their linguistic skills sometimes hurts migrant students’ feelings. For instance, there was an incident that a Japanese woman who got married to a Spanish man was assigned to a student from South America and denied the Spanish invasion of Latin America. Linguistic assistants can be counterproductive if schools choose the assistants without considering their historical understanding and skills in dealing with issues of identity and discrimination.

Assistants of migrant students are also required to inspire their students to try their best at school. It may be natural that migrant students are not willing to adjust to the Japanese way of education. They came to Japan mostly due to financial concerns  (for instance, in a case where their parents decided to migrate to Japan to look for a better-paying job), not out of their own free will. Nonetheless, they are very likely to remain in Japan, at least until finishing secondary education. Some of them may go to university or get employed in Japan. In order to ensure their future success, stability, and self-actualization, academic performance is an important factor.

As for the extracurricular activities, Mr. Kim warns that they can enhance the tendency to look upon migrant students as different or strange. He argues that since these classes are organized by Japanese teachers or volunteers, they are based on Japanese people’s stereotypical views on foreign cultures. Cultural activities must not be a place of cultural appropriation.

Teachers who are in direct charge of migrant students also frequently fail to understand migrant students’ troubles. One of my students disclosed his teacher’s lack of consideration when I asked him how his teacher treated him. According to him, his teacher reads aloud answers to homework only once, often without writing them on the blackboard or distributing handouts that show the answers. He usually cannot catch what his teacher says, so he tries to find answers in his textbooks after class, to no avail. . Another student told me that she was often scolded by her teachers since she appeared not to be listening to them. However, she argued that she had no idea what was going on in her classes as it was only a few months since she had come to Japan. In Japan, teachers’ evaluations account for a large proportion of public high school entrance examinations, so migrant students may be unjustifiably downgraded if teachers do not understand why migrant students seem to trail behind their Japanese classmates.

One may wonder why Kobe is so unprepared for providing education for migrant students although it has long been a city where a lot of foreign residents reside. According to Mr. Kim, assistance systems are organized only by Japanese officials and they do not reflect the voices of immigrants. The Japanese Ministry of Education prescribes that those who do not possess Japanese nationality cannot be employed as regular teachers at public schools. Hence, migrant students, their parents, or other migrants or foreign residents who can understand the students’ hardships cannot participate in the process of creating a school environment that is friendly to migrant students. Therefore, organizations like KFC are important. Many of the workers in KFC are migrants or foreign residents, so it is able to grasp the difficulties facing migrant students and to propose improvement plans to the city’s administration and education authorities from the perspective of migrant themselves. Mr. Kim emphasizes that Japanese people lack the ability to think critically about the present situation of migrant students from the perspective of such minorities. He says  that civil sectors like KFC are indispensable to ensure that minority voices will never be ignored in public policies and systems. However, what civil sectors like KFC can do is limited: those organizations are financially restricted, and they can approach only those students who happened to get connections to these organizations. Migrant students are also suffering from structural hardships existent in the Japanese education systems, so local and national authorities should tackle these issues through open discussion involving migrants and civil organizations supporting them.

Staffs at KFC are good role models for migrant students. Some of KFC’s volunteer staffs are migrants who came to Japan when they were primary school students and who now go to Japanese universities or work for Japanese companies. They talk to migrant students, shifting languages between Japanese and their mother tongues, depending on their students’ proficiency in Japanese. Not only do these staffs help their students with their schoolwork and linguistic issues, but they also sometimes share their experiences to perform well in Japanese education. Migrant students seem to be inspired by seeing their seniors who demonstrate that migrants can accomplish a successful self-actualization in Japan if they make their best at school and workplace. As a student born and brought up in Japan, I always feared that I had no right to spur migrant students since I could never sufficiently understand their everyday hardships. However, migrant students were respectfully and sympathetically listening to their seniors’ advice since these staffs have gone through and overcome the same hardships as those of the students.

In concluding his responses to my interview, Mr. Kim emphasised that Japanese people should avoid synchronizing migrant students with their mother countries. Japanese people have a tendency to stick to their stereotypical views towards people from foreign countries and to have prejudices against them based on the political situation between Japan and those countries. Mr. Kim claims that Japanese people must pay attention to each student’s needs and difficulties, regardless of diplomatic relations between Japan and their home countries.

Problems that I witnessed through my volunteering are not limited to Kobe. Rather, these are issues that the whole nation must address. Due to the country’s declining birth rate and increasing public utility in preparation for the 2020 Olympic games, Japan will soon be required to accept more immigrants. Hence, Japan should make its social structure friendlier to immigrants. Hardships surrounding migrant students particularly need careful attention. In order to build up a society in which all inhabitants can share their issues and cooperate to achieve self-actualization, Japanese people must first listen humbly to the voices of migrant students.



Keigo Nishio is a sophomore in Branford College. You can contact him at keigo.nishio@yale.edu.