Bilingual Education in Japan

by Misa Fukutome

In Japan it has become popular to send one’s child to a bilingual school along with the increase of foreigners. Hence, there is an increase of bilingual schools in Japan. However, there is a problem that occurs that the expectation of the parents and the children tend to misunderstand, because when the children are young and have not developed a sense of identity, going to a bilingual school is not a problem. Then children grow up and realise that they have their own identity and become more self conscious, which leads to the next problem of their imperfection of their second language they are speaking. For example if the children are going to a English bilingual school, because of their environment around them is in Japanese they don’t find the need to speak English, or having an education in English because it is easier in Japanese.

Yasuko Kanno wrote “Imagined Communities, School Visions, and the Education of Bilingual Students in Japan,” in which she compares 4 different types of bilingual schools.

The first one is an English bilingual school where the majority of the students have no bilingual background and their knowledge towards English is zero. The reason why those Japanese students are sent there is because the parents enroll their children in the bilingual school, because they believe that it is important for the 21st century children to be able to bilingual. However, the problem is that as mentioned above they have no use of English in their everyday life that their language perfection is very low.

The second type of bilingual school is Chinese-Japanese. Their curriculum is that they start off with mainly Chinese and then gradually the main focus goes to Japanese by the time the students are in junior high. This school is designed for the 4th- and 5th-generation Chinese children whose native language is Japanese. Not to to forget to mention even though most children attending are 4th or 5th generation, there are also children that have just moved from mainland China, and there is a minority of full-Japanese students attending this school. Here too the problem of the main communication language occurs, because of this system of fading into main Japanese courses their ability to express themselves in Chinese becomes limited.

The third type is the other way around in terms of main language, because this is an international school. If one looks at where the international schools are located, one might see that it is placed where there are a lot of international businesses, diplomatic work, or where there are hāfu (half-Japanese and half-foreign). Because financially those groups of people are able to afford expensive education, the children going there are expected to have a high level of English, since it is an international school. However, since the school is located in Japan, there are some Japanese programs such as arts and social studies, and of course Japanese language courses. Here the problem is that the western, or English-speaking students do not make an effort in learning Japanese, since at home they do not necessarily speak Japanese or they can get by in their daily life with English.

The fourth type of school is also focused on  location. There are Japanese public schools that are located in a community that has a lot of foreigners, who have mainly blue-collar jobs. Since there are few programs to support bilingual education in Japanese public schools, those schools must find their own solutions, including supporting the children who must learn Japanese as a second language by providing extra Japanese lessons, but those supports are limited.

In the end I would like to say that education is very important but I think we get off-track because of this idea of being INTERNATIONAL or BILINGUAL, so we do not look at our children and see what is best for them. I have gone through Japanese school (NOT BILINGUAL SCHOOL) and international school and what I have learned is that I am glad that I could perfect my Japanese first then my English, but I am not saying that this is right for all children. I imagine that it is very hard for the schools too, to make a curriculum for children who are bilingual and who are not, and the level comes into play too. We can always have ideals and expectation for the best but it is not always right for everybody.

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2 thoughts on “Bilingual Education in Japan

  1. Interesting note by Misa Fukutome. We are presently involved with a book project that focuses on young children and language learning. We are particularly interested in contacting researchers in Japan and China, for example, to join us by submitting an article that could become a chapter. If you or if you know someone who could be interested, please drop a line to me. Jamie Wallin (Dr.) at rsu.wallin@yahoo.ca
    (Note the ‘ca’ in my email address refers to Canada) PS I am a Canadian working at Rangsit University in Thailand.

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