A Message of Diversity and Inclusion: Reporting on “Sitting Alongside Immigrant Children”

Books Society Education

In recent years, the topics of diversity and inclusion have become more prominent in Japan. But how well do people grasp these concepts? The journalist Tamaki Tarō spent time volunteering in a classroom for immigrant children in Osaka’s Minami district and has written a compassionate account of this truly diverse area.

The Kodomo Kyōshitsu (Children’s Classroom) program, hosted in Osaka’s Minami district each Tuesday night, attracts a group of about 60 people. An adult supporter sits alongside each young participant, and at the end of the two-hour sessions, the children appear cheerful and relaxed.

All of the kids are from overseas, while the volunteers are mainly Japanese adults or university students. Tamaki Tarō, a journalist and one such volunteer, has chronicled his time there in a new book, Imin no kodomo no tonari ni suwaru: Ōsaka Minami no kyōshitsu kara (Sitting Alongside Immigrant Children: From a Classroom in Minami, Osaka).

His account is based on a decade of experience volunteering at the center, rather than just a one-off visit. Consequently, the children come alive in his writing. While reading the book, I found myself taking a parent’s perspective, empathizing with the kids and, at times, feeling angry at their situations. It prompted many thoughts about immigration and diversity—issues I do not often have much reason to ponder.

Chats That Bring a Sense of Relief

The Children’s Classroom is located in Shimanouchi, a suburb in Osaka’s Minami district, an area once synonymous with seedy entertainment.

Now, Minami refers to a rectangular neighborhood just east of the popular shopping district that stretches from Shinsaibashi to the Dōtonbori canal. The area has around 6,000 residents, a third of whom are non-Japanese.

These people hail from many countries, including the Philippines, China, Korea, and Brazil. Often, their children struggle with Japanese language and are uncommunicative at their regular schools. At the Children’s Classroom, though, where they can enjoy interacting in their mother tongues, they become animated and cheerful.

The volunteers, who assist the children one-on-one, often become involved in games and sumō wrestling matches, or simply sit back and listen to the children’s problems.

Children whose parents work in the food and beverage industry spend hours alone at home after school. Their cheerful, relaxed expressions at the end of the Tuesday night session are no doubt thanks to the opportunity to speak, laugh, and interact freely with others, providing them with both mental and physical release.

Makiko, who came to Japan from Thailand as a seventh grader, expressed it well: “If it wasn’t for this classroom, I might not have any friends. When I came here, I found people who’d listen to me, which was great. I couldn’t say a word at school. Here, I got a sense of relief from just being able to talk to someone.”

When she first arrived in Japan, she hardly knew any Japanese, and spent most her time at school all by herself. She found support through the Children’s Classroom, and gradually grew more accustomed to her regular school environment. Soon, she had lots of friends, and was able to make and follow through with her own decisions about her future.

Creating a Space for Children

Minami’s Children’s Classroom began in the fall of 2003. The concept sprang from a convergence of specialists in fields such as kaihō kyōiku, or “open education,” which in Japan focused on assimilation and inclusion for communities suffering from discrimination; ethnic education; and support for Japanese students returning from extended times spent abroad. They formed a small group that was hosted at first by a local elementary school and later relocated to a municipal facility. The group is now well-established and plays an important role in the local community.

The founding members hoped to create something that was not merely an extension of school education—they strongly felt the need to create a space for children in the area, and this sense comes through strongly in the book.

The volunteers are regular members of the public, not school teachers, and the program does not have a set curriculum. The successful development of a place where children can express themselves freely within the context of a place for study is likely thanks to the physical and psychological lines in place distinguishing it from school.

In the classroom, the children cook and eat food from their homelands and research the background to their own names to explain to the class. The activities do not appear to have been assigned from above—instead, they seem spontaneous, unrestricted, and enjoyable.

Of course, each activity has an intended purpose. Cooking and eating help the children better understand their friends who adhere to particular diets for religious reasons. The name research is to alleviate the sense of inferiority​ in children who have lost self-esteem because they do not understand Japanese. The staff hope that the children can regain a sense of self-worth by learning about the names given to them by their parents.

But none of the activities are compulsory. Instead, the children want to join in because they are fun. That seems appropriate.

Diversity and Inclusion Without Arrogance

Diversity and inclusion are often touted as lofty goals to strive toward. When the subjects are immigrants or other non-Japanese, the path to their realization becomes vaguer.

Maybe there is no need for such resolute effort—that is the impression this book imparts. Maybe it is more important to simply create venues where people can open their hearts and feel free to speak their minds. What is needed is the determination to make such places.

Children naturally have an abundance of energy and potential. When given a space where they can feel at home and enjoy themselves, they can surely find their feet in any community. If more such spaces are created around Japan, I believe it will help us to achieve greater diversity and inclusion.

It was only words on the pages of a book, but afterwards, I could picture the smiling faces of the children and imagine their cheerful voices. It left me hoping that Japan can be a country where these children and other immigrant children in the future can be happy and carefree.

Imin no kodomo no tonari ni suwaru: Ōsaka Minami no kyōshitsu kara (Sitting Alongside Immigrant Children: From a Classroom in Minami, Osaka)

Imin no kodomo no tonari ni suwaru: Ōsaka Minami no kyōshitsu kara (Sitting Alongside Immigrant Children: From a Classroom in Minami, Osaka)

By Tamaki Tarō
Published in October 2023 by Asahi Shimbun Publications
ISBN: 978-4-02-251943-6

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A night view of Osaka’s Dōtonbori area, near Minami. © Pixta.)

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