Night Classes Help Foreign Students Adapt to Japanese Schools

Society Education

For many years, night schools provided vital learning opportunities for people who never finished their basic education in the chaos of the postwar years. Today they are meeting a new need as the number of foreign students in Japanese schools increases.

This spring, the board of education for Kawaguchi in Saitama Prefecture announced plans to open a public junior high school that will offer night classes in time for the beginning of the new school year in April 2019. As well as catering for children who cannot easily attend school in regular hours because of conditions at home, economic hardships, or bullying, the board said it hoped the new school would help to meet the needs of growing numbers of foreign-born children applying for classes recently to improve their Japanese.

The city is home to the Kawaguchi Independent Night School Junior High, run by local volunteers since the 1980s. A similar group, long associated with the Kawaguchi volunteers, supports the Matsudo Independent Night School in the city of Matsudo in Chiba Prefecture, which has lobbied local and national government for many years to establish an official night school as part of the city’s municipal education system. The school in Matsudo is a pioneering example of more than 300 such independent night schools around the country. I recently made a visit to see how these volunteer schools are run and what they contribute to their local communities.

Increasing Diversity in City Schools

Enomoto Hirotsugu, who heads a local group that has campaigned for a public night school in Matsudo.

It is 5:45 on a Friday evening in mid-May when I arrive at a municipal hall in Matsudo. There are four rooms on the second floor. On the doors to each of the rooms is written: Matsudo Independent Night School Junior High. I’m met by Enomoto Hirotsugu, a man in his sixties who works as representative of the local nonprofit organization that runs the night school. He tells me how the increasing number of foreign children attending local schools has given the night school a new role in recent years.

“When we started the school in 1983, a lot of the people who attended were ethnic Koreans and war orphans from Manchuria and China. Most of them were in their fifties and sixties then, and many of them are no longer with us. These days we get a lot of children who have grown up overseas and come to Japan relatively recently with their parents. They attend local schools in the city or nearby and come to us for extra lessons at night. We have up to around 20 students at any one time. There are more than 10 nationalities enrolled at the moment, including China, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Nepal, and Bangladesh.”

Classes run from six till nine at night.

Situated within 20 kilometers of the capital, Matsudo developed as a “bedroom town” for commuters working in the massive Tokyo conurbation. But in recent years the population growth has started to stagnate. Nevertheless, last year the official population passed 490,000 for the first time, thanks to increasing numbers of foreign residents.

According to a survey carried out by the city government, there were 14,120 residents with non-Japanese nationality in the city at the end of 2016 (up from 12,966 in 2015). China was the most common foreign nationality, with 5,998 residents (up from 5,576 in 2015), followed by Vietnam with 2,039 (1,828) and the Philippines with 1,653 (1,590). There were also 1,651 (1,603) ethnic Korean residents.

Aiming for High School

Many of the children who attend night classes already speak Japanese quite well. But they still struggle to follow exactly what their teachers are saying in class and sometimes find it difficult to understand the explanations in their textbooks accurately. Subjects like Japanese, social studies, and geography can be particularly challenging.

Many of these children are studying for high school entrance exams. Their numbers start to go up around June or July every year, and by the autumn there are 20 to 25 students. Many attend night classes almost daily until their exams in February or March the following year. “It’s become a regular part of our calendar,” says Enomoto. “They really throw themselves into their studies and hardly take a day off except at New Year. Not just the students but everyone at the school works as hard as possible to make sure they pass.”

Chiba Prefecture offers a special selection process for foreign children applying to enter high school, with special consideration for students who entered Japan within the past three years and who live or plan to live in the prefecture together with a guardian. Children meeting these criteria can apply to participating schools, where students are assessed by an interview and essay (in either English or Japanese). They are exempt from taking the regular exams that Japanese children take (Japanese, mathematics, English, social studies, and science) and instead are assessed based on a comprehensive evaluation of their interview and essay, an appraisal completed by their junior high school, and application forms under the special foreign student admission system. The independent night schools have become a favorite place for children to gain the academic skills they need to help them pass these special tests.

The Need for a Public Night School

The Matsudo night school started in 1983, when it was founded by local volunteers. Most of the school’s students in those years were people who had never finished junior high school for various reasons in the chaos of World War II and its aftermath.

Since then, the school has increasingly helped bullied children who dropped out of school and students with disabilities. So far some 1,700 people have studied at the school. In May 2017, there were around 50 students enrolled. Of these, around a dozen were non-Japanese children.

The school is maintained by a staff of around 30 volunteers—former school teachers, company employees, and civil servants. There are normally 20 or so actively teaching at any given time. Students choose the materials and subjects they want to learn, and approach a member of staff who teaches that subject. The school runs from six to nine in the evenings, offering joint lessons, individual tuition, and private study. Students normally take a combination of these options.

There are no entrance exams, no admission fees, and no monthly fees. Many children study here for two or three years and then go on to further study or work elsewhere. The funds for running the school come from subscription fees paid by roughly 250 members and from the takoyaki (octopus-in-batter snacks) and other items that members of staff make and sell at a local flea market.

According to a survey carried out by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), there were 307 independent night schools around the country as of May 1, 2014—almost all of them run by local community volunteers. Since 1979, the citizens’ group of which Enomoto is a member has been petitioning the Matsudo Board of Education to establish a public night school that would allow students to obtain a qualification equivalent to a junior high school diploma: in other words, an official public school that is part of an ordinary junior high school run by a local municipality, and offers junior high school classes at night.

The group’s efforts finally bore fruit this February when the city announced plans to open night classes in one of the city’s municipal junior high schools. According to the national census in 2010, there are at least 128,000 people in Japan who have not graduated from junior high school, and therefore have never completed compulsory education. This includes a number of foreign students.

Official steps to address this situation have been sporadic and unimpressive. In 1954, there were 89 public night schools around the country; today there are just 31, located in eight prefectures. MEXT has said it aims to establish at least one such school in each of the country’s 47 prefectures, but so far there has been little sign of concrete progress toward this target.

Continuing Night Classes In High School

On the day of my visit, a sixth-grade boy and a third-grade girl sat with their mothers at a long desk in a corner of the classroom. They had all arrived in Japan in February this year from China. The children, who both attend local elementary schools, were studying Japanese with a male instructor in his seventies.

The boy’s mother spoke to me in Japanese.

“Using Japanese to communicate is not easy. My son brings home lots of printouts for his homework, but I can’t read what they say. The teachers here are very helpful. They explain everything in a way that is easy to understand. I want my son to learn to speak Japanese quickly and make lots of friends. I wish they would provide more opportunities to learn Japanese at his elementary school as well.”

The woman’s husband came to Japan alone eight years ago for work, and is employed at a company near Matsudo. This February, when their son was about to start sixth grade, he called his family over to join him. The three of them now live together in the city. The other mother at the school on the day I visited also brought her daughter with her when she came to join her husband recently. He has worked in Japan for six years.

Many of the school’s teachers are former company employees and government workers.

In another classroom, four foreign students are at work on Japanese and other subjects. Three of these are male students who entered municipal high schools in the city this April after passing Chiba Prefecture’s special entrance procedures for foreign students. They decided to continue attending classes at the independent night school even after gaining admission to high school.

One of them, a sixteen-year-old student came to Japan with his parents from the Philippines three years ago. “I came here because I want to learn about contemporary society. I want to know more about Japan. It’s difficult to follow the lessons in school. I hope that studying here will make it easier for me to keep up in class.” The other two students are from China. One came with his parents from Shanghai three years ago. “I can’t understand science lessons. It’s difficult to follow what the teacher is saying. At the moment, I’m attending a juku [cram school] as well. Maybe I’m just not studying hard enough. It seems to go in one ear and out the other.” The second Chinese student came to Japan two years ago with his mother to join his father, who has lived in Matsudo for some time. “I can’t follow the lessons in school. It’s hard to understand what the teacher is saying.”

The “Trainees” Keeping Japan’s Factories Turning

The night schools are also providing vital Japanese language training for the increasing numbers of interns coming to Japan under the auspices of the government-affiliated Japan International Training Cooperation Organization. According to a report put out by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in January 2017, there were some 1.08 million foreign citizens working in Japan as of the end of October 2016 —the first time this number has passed the one million mark. The number of “technical trainees” increased by 25% on the previous year, to around 210,000.

Under the Technical Intern Training Program being pushed by the government, “trainees” from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries come to Japan to work in areas where there is a shortage of native manpower: particularly in manufacturing, farming and fisheries, and construction. The increasing numbers of these trainees is another reason why the local government decided to establish a municipal night school in Kawaguchi.

For companies, the system has many advantages: primarily the fact that it allows them keep labor costs down by hiring foreigners to work for lower wages than Japanese employees. But there are also problems. Disputes are common over questions of wages and pay, and the long hours that trainees are expected to work. In some cases, employers apparently confiscate trainees’ passports for “safekeeping,” placing the foreign workers in a desperately weak position if anything goes wrong. It is likely that some of the trainees attending night schools around the country have already faced problems of this kind, and are trying to deal with their situation without a full command of the language.

A visit to Japan’s night schools raises questions about the state of our society as a whole.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 7, 2017. Banner photo: Class in session at the Matsudo Independent Night School. This and all other photos by Yoshida Norifumi.)

education foreign workers immigration night junior high school foreigner