The Making of an Underclass: Japan’s Neglect of Immigrant Education


Japan is neglecting the basic welfare of its foreign school-aged children due to policies that fail to provide necessary support to non-Japanese residents, thereby depriving their children of an appropriate quality education, writes Kojima Yoshimi of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. .

In September 2019, a report by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) released the first official estimate of the number of out-of-school children in the growing international community. from Japan. A nationwide survey of local boards of education concluded that up to 20,000 children of compulsory school age of non-Japanese nationality – nearly one in five of the total – may not receive a school education. This figure would put Japan’s international community on par with sub-Saharan Africa, the region of the world with the highest number of children out of school at the elementary level (according to a recent study UNESCO report).

How do you explain such a low school attendance rate among foreign children of school age in Japan, an industrially advanced country renowned for its high academic standards? In what follows, I will attempt to provide some answers, based on my two-year study of school attendance of immigrant children in Kani, Gifu Prefecture. (Throughout this article, I use the terms “immigrant children” and “foreign children” as shorthand to refer to eligible school-aged children without Japanese nationality registered as residents of Japan. School-age is defined as from 6 to 15 years old, which roughly corresponds to compulsory years, from the first to the ninth).

Foreigners and the right to education

First, we need to understand how the Japanese government views and treats school attendance of immigrant children. The MEXT provides essential information on this subject in a Q&A on the education of foreigners, published on its official website:

Q: What are the key points to know about the education of foreign children?

A: In Japan, non-Japanese residents are under no obligation to enroll children under their care in a school. However, if they wish to enroll them in a public institution [elementary or junior high] in school, their children are entitled to the same free education offered to Japanese students, in accordance with international human rights covenants.

Readers may be surprised to learn that foreign residents in Japan, including long-term immigrants, have no legal obligation to send their children to school. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that not only “everyone has the right to education”, but also that “elementary education is compulsory” (article 26). Compulsory school attendance, an obligation imposed on parents and guardians, is the mechanism by which the universal right to education is guaranteed. Yet even elementary education is not compulsory for foreign nationals in Japan.

This is consistent with the central government’s interpretation of Article 26 of the Constitution of Japan. Paragraph 2 states: “All persons [subete kokumin] are required to ensure that all the boys and girls under their protection follow the ordinary education provided for by law”. In this context, kokumin is interpreted to mean “the Japanese people”, thus exempting non-Japanese guardians. However, in article 30, on the obligation to pay taxes, kokumin is understood more broadly, to mean “residents of Japan”. By changing its interpretation according to the circumstances, the national government has effectively deprived the children of foreign nationals of their right to education.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education to be given to their children” (article 26). But the Japanese government effectively denies this right to foreign nationals by denying its recognition – and therefore a basic level of regulation and fiscal support – to ethnic and international schools in Japan. There are some 200 such schools established to meet the needs of children of various ethnicities – Brazilian, Nepalese, Korean, etc. – but almost none of them are classified as gakko (schools) by the government. As a result, children who attend them are not entitled to periodic health checks and other basic social services at state expense. In this way, Japan has created a society that shirks its responsibility for the basic health and safety of immigrant children.

fall through the cracks

In November 2020, around the time the third wave of COVID-19 infections hit Japan, one of these ethnic schools became the center of a major outbreak. The source of the infection appears to have been non-Japanese workers who were forced to continue to travel to work because their work situation did not allow telecommuting. The virus spread to their children and from there to other people at school. But local agencies lacked the information and mechanisms to intervene in a timely manner. Punished by this turn of events, the central government set up a commission to review health and hygiene in ethnic and international schools. An investigation was undertaken and the commission compiled a report highlighting the serious divide between the Japanese gakko and ethnic schools, which often lack infirmaries and qualified health personnel. Yet there has been no follow-up aimed at protecting the health and lives of immigrant children, even as the pandemic continues to rage.

How many children fall through Japan’s health safety net at this crucial moment in history? Let’s review the latest numbers from MEXT.

At the end of March 2022, MEXT published the results of a second survey on the schooling of foreign children. The latest report revealed that 5.9% of all foreign children attend institutions that are not recognized as gakko by the government. Another 9.9% could not be accounted for and were most likely not in school at all. (When about one in ten children are missing, one can hardly be blamed for wondering if their lives really matter to the government of Japan.) In total, these two categories make up about 21,000 children, or about one in six of all immigrant children in Japan. Japan, whose health is outside the jurisdiction of the government.

Diversity and the right to quality education

Also at the end of March 2022, MEXT released its latest report on students requiring remedial Japanese language instruction in public schools nationwide (school year 2021). According to the report, 1 in 20 do not continue to secondary school or find employment after lower secondary school. Of those who complete high school, 1 in 7 ends up out of school and unemployed. The school dropout rate among students needing instruction in Japanese is 5%, five times the overall dropout rate in Japanese high schools. MEXT also reports that 5.1% of those who need a remedial Japanese course at the elementary or lower secondary level are enrolled in special education classes (small classes for children with disabilities), compared to 3.6 % in the whole population.

It is true, as stated in the Q&A above, that foreign nationals who wish to enroll their children in public primary or secondary school can do so free of charge. The lure of free education helps explain why the vast majority of immigrant children actually attend Japanese public schools. But given the relatively large proportion of dropouts and unemployed, one has to ask whether foreign students are receiving a quality education tailored to their needs. This is a particularly deplorable situation today, when an appropriate and quality education is so crucial to realizing one’s individual potential as a productive member of society.

If Japan wishes to attract valuable human resources from around the world, it must abandon laws, policies and practices that marginalize large sections of society on the basis of nationality. It must not only guarantee the right of every child to a quality education but also, to give it meaning, associate it with the right of guardians to choose the type of education they deem best for their children. This means recognizing all schools in grades 1-9 as gakko and granting all children in Japan the freedom to receive an education that respects their diversity, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a country where school refusal has soared to 200,000 (according to MEXT data for 2020), such a reform would not only benefit foreign children but also the many Japanese children who struggle in the high-pressure environment and often stifling of this nation. public schools.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Students at Escola Comunitaria Paulo Freire, an ethnic school for the children of Japanese-Brazilian and Peruvian factory workers living in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture. © Jiji .)


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