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Cultural differences pose a challenge at schools

TOKYO >> With the increase in foreign students at elementary and junior high schools, cultural differences between non-Japanese children and school authorities are presenting considerable challenges for teachers.

Some foreign students bring soft drinks to school, which is banned, while others do not report their absences. Many children and their parents or guardians are confused by Japanese school rules that are different from those in their home countries.

With the increase of foreign workers in Japan, some local governments have begun setting up facilities to not only teach children the Japanese language, but also help them learn the rules they must adhere to at school.

In one case, a Chinese pupil at a Tokyo public elementary school was left at home alone for several days. The child’s guardian had gone on a business trip, leaving the child with money for food. It was not the first instance of a child being left unsupervised for days.

The school has urged guardians not to leave children at home alone, citing safety risks. But some guardians were surprised by the worry and said that they did not share the school’s concerns about safety.

More than 30% of students at the Tokyo school are from overseas. The school provides Japanese language classes and carefully goes over school rules. It also teaches children about daily life and routines at the school, such as cleaning the school campus, and teachers show students how to carry out those tasks.

But it’s taking time for foreign families there to conform to all these practices — some families still are not reporting absences.

“It is not easy to make them understand the differences in lifestyles, partly due to the language barrier,” said a member of the school community. “When the number of foreign children further increases, to what extent can we cope with the situation?”

Sometimes the culture clash doesn’t involve school rules, but the norms of school culture. At a public elementary school’s athletic meet in Hyogo Prefecture, for instance, the guardian of a Vietnamese student took the child home after the child was done participating, even though the event was still going on. The guardian didn’t understand that the meet was part of the school curriculum, the school said, but assumed it was an extracurricular sporting event.

According to an education ministry survey, during the 2016 school year 34,335 foreign students nationwide needed to learn the Japanese language. That figure reflects about a 50% increase over 10 years and is likely to rise with the increasing number of foreign workers coming into the country.

To address the situation, in 2017 the Yokohama city government set up a facility dedicated to helping mainly elementary and junior- high foreign children learn Japanese. They attended classes about three days a week, and also learned school rules.

Currently more than 2,300 children in Yokohama take language lessons. Since the facility opened, there has been an improvement in adherence to school rules.

During the 2018 school year, the Hamamatsu city government started a program that deploys staff to schools to support foreign students in the early stages of their adjustment to Japanese school life. Staffers introduced students to such daily routines as preparing for school lunch, cleaning the school and carrying out tasks as a classroom monitor.

The ministry has provided financial support to local governments in 65 areas nationwide, including support for operating facilities to aid foreign students.

But while it’s important for foreigners to conform to school norms, they should be handled sensitively, said an expert in cross-cultural education.

“It’s important not to force things that are considered common sense in Japanese schools on foreign students, but to make good use of the cultural differences in educating children about the importance of understanding different cultures,” said Tomoko Ochiai, an associate professor at Kobe University.

It’s vital for schools to realize that foreign students bring with them educational opportunities for Japanese students, she added.

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