by Kyungyeon Chung
Education is an important block for state and citizen-building. Especially in public schools, what is taught in classrooms reflects what is valued in society, and vice versa. Schools are the first and foremost tool governments will reach out to, when in need of public campaign. Many times, this reflection can regard more overarching values such as democracy; sometimes it can be more particular such as desire for unification in South Korea, or “collective communalism” in Japan (Moorehead 2013). In such cases whereby national education system serves to shape citizens, the incoming flow of immigrant children can pose a big challenge to the state- and the society’s perception of itself.
In the article “Separate and Unequal” by Robert Moorehead, remedial language lessons for immigrant children in Japanese public schools are argued to be an ethnic project. Having come back to the ‘homeland’ from Latin America, immigrant children with Japanese heritage required JSL lessons that were supposed to help them reach an equal footing with native-born students. However, in reality, keeping immigrant children in a separate classroom with little structured support, their potential and possibilities continue to be restricted, while native-born students proceed ahead. The author describes how this system gravely fails the students, further separating them along racial lines, and reflects “particular conceptualizations of the children’s’ future lives as members of Japanese society” (Moorehead 2013). Such particular conceptualization stems, at least partially, from Japan’s societal perception of it as an ethnically and historically homogeneous country that values harmony, uniformity, and collectivism.
This sort of challenge is not only experienced by Japan, though. Germany has also undergone several changes to address similar problems. In the article “From homogeneity to diversity in German education”, Anne Sliwka, a professor at Heidelberg University of Education in Germany, describes the issue in detail.
Since the large influx of immigrants in the 1960s, the German government became increasingly aware that the immigrants of diverse backgrounds were not there temporarily but would settle (Sliwka, 2010). At the time, the fundamental paradigm behind German education is the assumption that the homogeneity of learners in a group best facilitates their individual learning (Sliwka, 2010). Based on this assumption, Germany has long maintained a system divided into four or five general categories in which children were sorted into the “right” type of school for them (UK-German Connection, n.d.). However diverse educational needs of immigrant children came to highlight the shortcomings of this generalized system and unrealistic expectation of homogeneity.
Following the recognition of heterogeneous student population, there have been several shifts in the field: more policies are programed to support individualized lessons; data are collected to account for cultural, socio-economic and linguistic differences; growing research on equity in classrooms (Sliwka, 2010). As time passes, this slow yet growing shift in the education paradigm in Germany from the focus on ‘average’ to acceptance of diversity would further encourage the society-wide recognition and appreciation as well. Sliwka writes “changing the way the German educational system views diversity also entails cultural change in the society at large” (2010).
Both cases of Japan and Germany illustrate how education needs of immigrant children can encourage dialogues in the nations to think twice and hard about their perception of itself as a homogeneous nation. However the immigrant population is here to settle, live, and grow. The process will no doubt take a long time and require more than a change in curriculum or educational agenda. However, schools can be a very good starting point. After all, appropriate teaching from early age can lay sound foundations for healthy dialogues in society for a long time to come.
Moorehead, Robert. 2013. “Separate and Unequal: The Remedial Japanese Language Classroom as an Ethnic Project.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11(32):3.
Sliwka, A. “From homogeneity to diversity in German education.” Educating teachers for diversity meeting the challenge. Paris: OECD, 2010. 205-217.
UK-German Connection. “The school system in Germany.” UK-German Connection. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 June 2014. <>.