Foreign teachers in Japan face discriminatory treatment and a glass ceiling in public schools

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Korean teachers in Zainichi call for the elimination of discriminatory treatment of teachers based on nationality, at the House of Councilors members’ office building in Tokyo on August 5, 2022. (Mainichi/Keisuke Kawazu)

TOKYO — Foreign teachers in public schools in Japan have been forced to experience different treatment than 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 alongside Japanese citizens.

Faced with this “barrier of nationality”, foreign teachers are mobilizing to eliminate ill-treatment because it is precisely in their workplace that they teach children to “eradicate discrimination”.

“If the teachers themselves backed down from the issues of discrimination and prejudice, could they actually solve the bullying and other issues? We would also be setting a bad example for the children,” said resident Kim Yongtaerang, 48. Korean from Zainichi in Japan who teaches at a public high school in one of Tokyo’s 23 central wards.

On August 5, Kim and other Korean teachers from different parts of Japan visited the House of Councilors members’ office building in Tokyo, along with members of a citizens’ group. They had direct talks with officials from the Ministry of Education and Foreign Affairs to demand the elimination of discriminatory treatment based on nationality.

Under Japanese law, there are no provisions restricting the right of foreign residents to become local officials. However, many local governments prohibit foreign residents from taking employment exams for these agencies or limit their appointment to managerial positions or specific job categories.

With regard to regular teachers in public schools, the Ministry of Education issued a notice in 1991 urging that doors be opened for the employment of foreign nationals throughout the country. However, that same notice also included descriptions that would reinforce discriminatory treatment against foreigners. Specifically, the notice prohibited the appointment of foreign teachers to managerial positions and called for distinguishing them from Japanese “teachers” by limiting foreign nationals to the position of “full-time instructors without tenure”.

Therefore, foreign teachers, even if they pass the same exams as their Japanese counterparts, have been barred from promotions or salary increases based on their experiences and abilities, even if their job descriptions are no different from those of their Japanese counterparts, including stints as full professors.

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

– The Japanese government uses the “principle of law” as a shield

The national government, however, has not decided to review the status quo. There was reportedly no positive response during the August 5 negotiations with the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs.

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

Hiroshi Tanaka, professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University and versed in human rights issues involving foreign residents in Japan, noted: “Article 3 of the Labor Standards Law prohibits employers from using nationality as a basis for discriminatory treatment of workers. scope of the reason that “the natural principle of the law”, which is not even a law, takes precedence”.

Meanwhile, responses to children of foreign descent have become a pressing issue in schools across the country. According to the Ministry of Education, some 58,000 children needed Japanese lessons as of May 2021, including 47,000 children of foreign nationality. The figure had jumped about 1.7 times from the previous decade.

In prefectures and municipalities that host many foreign residents, there is a growing need to secure human resources capable of responding to multicultural and inclusive education. The governments of Gifu and Aichi prefectures have adopted employment exams that include assessments of applicants’ abilities in Portuguese, Chinese and other foreign languages.

Although such movements have spread, the precarious situation of foreign teachers has been largely overlooked.

A book titled “Koritsu gakko no gaikokuseki kyoin” (Foreign teachers in public schools), published in 2021 by Akashi Shoten, points out that while the government “rely on foreigners for the internationalization and globalization of education if necessary, he makes no effort to confront problems related to their profession or their treatment squarely.”

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

(Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, Editorial Board)

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