International Migrant Integration through Education in Japan

by Curran Cunningham

Following on from my previous blog, which showed the importance of migrant remittances, I now turn my attention to the role of education in assimilating second generation international migrant families into Japanese society.

Yasuko Kanno’s paper ‘Sending Mixed Messages: Language Minority Education at a Japanese Public Elementary School’ focuses on that very subject. This blog will look at her interpretation—and criticism—of the Japanese education system at an elementary schooling level in this area.

Until the 1990s, it was considered a must that all courses and classes in Japan should be taught in Japanese. The purpose was to encourage integration among non-Japanese residents into Japanese society (Kanno, 2004).  Yet the method of teaching Japanese to non-native elementary students has thus far been ineffective. It has neglected the linguistic, thus academic, needs (due to the exclusively Japanese taught curriculum), of immigrant children. It has left migrants lagging behind, condemning them to become academic underachievers and marginalized as immigrants.

The system needs fixing. It cannot be disputed that a high proficiency in local language aids the understanding and even adoption of local culture. So it follows that Japanese language proficiency would allow second generation migrants to ascend the social hierarchy more easily. Without language proficiency, many migrants find their occupational choices narrowed to work not requiring Japanese fluency—work that is normally menial or at least low paying. And limited income affects educational opportunities, leaving no choice bur for parents to enroll their children into public schools instead of private schools, which must adhere to the Japanese Board Education’s defined curriculum, funding, and programs—notably lacking in L2 language support. This creates a self-perpetuating vicious circle, as generation after generation would be forced into a public school system which does not prioritise their needs.

Kanno underlines the importance of the role of teachers in the process of helping the next migrant generation assimilate into the host society. Teachers individually voice and project their messages, their beliefs and ideas onto the student, whether through simple language learning, cultural awareness-raising or even showing how to participate in a democratic society (Vaipae, 2001).

Teachers who educate migrants do not tend to be professionally trained and can communicate very little in the migrant’s first language (Kanno, 2004). Though the idea of diversity and ‘being proud of your origin’ is promoted in Japanese schools, little is done in keeping the migrant’s mother tongue alive (Kanno, 2004). Students may not develop knowledge of their first language much when learning their host country’s language, mastering neither properly in the end. Also there is a disconnect between Japanese and migrant students as they are taught in separate parts of the school. This obviously hinders communication between students, and stops Japanese student in turn taking advantage of migrant student presence to learn about the outside world.

Kanno wholeheartedly supports Cummins’s theory that “orienteers of culture and linguistic diversity are reflected in the policies and practices of school” (2000a, 2000b). Yet teachers in this respect engage in the ‘coercive relations of power’, as they do not question the social inequality found in Japan and reaffirm the status quo for minorities (Cummins, 2000a).  The education system is based around suppressing minority students’ linguistic and cultural identity as well as accepting the rules and values imposed by the dominant group as ‘natural, normal, universal…’ (Heller & Martin-Jones, 2001). With this, Kanno believes that not only teaching skills in general need improvement, but one must study the ins and outs of a society to create understanding.

Since the beginning, classes taught to migrants are academically lagging behind Japanese students of their age group. This gap widens as time goes on. Eventually they may find themselves in dire need of help and unable to compete in the job market. Interviews of teachers by Kanno at this particular Japanese elementary school showed that their lack of work ethic was in fact their parents’ responsibility. Teachers do not look at themselves as a potential reason for the problem and hence no changes are likely to happen in the near future unless there is a shake-up and reform of the Japanese schooling system.

References

Cummins, J. (2000a) Language, power and pedagogy. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. (2000b) Negotiating intercultural identities in the multilingual classroom. The CATESOL Journal 12 (1), 163-178.

Heller, M. and Martin-Jones, M. (2001) Introduction: Symbolic domination, education and linguistic difference. In M. Heller and M. Martin-Jones (eds) Voices of authority: Education and linguistic difference (pp. 1-28). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Kanno, Y. (2004). Sending mixed messages: Language minority education at a Japanese public elementary school. In A. Pavlenko (eds) Negotiation of identities in multilingual contexts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Vaipae, S. (2001) Language minority students in Japanese public schools. In M. Noguchi and S. Fotos (eds) Studies in Japanese bilingualism (pp. 184–233).

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