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.


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).


The Death of Language

by Bun Kin

Today, half of the six thousand or so languages are spoken by fewer than ten thousand people. On the other hand, only a small number are spoken by hundreds of millions of people. Researchers believe that no language can survive unless one hundred thousand people speak it.

However, actually the death of languages is not a new thing. Since languages diversified, at least thirteen thousand of them were born and disappeared without leaving any sign. What is new is the speed at which they are dying out. For example, over the last three hundred years, Europe has lost about twelve languages, Australia has only twenty left of 215 languages, and Brazil has lost 500, three-fourths of total languages. This was brought by colonial conquests, whose territorial unity was linked to their linguistic homogeneity.

The effects of the death of languages are serious for several reasons. First, as each languages dies, a part of human history comes to an end. Because we can’t completely understand the origins of human language or solve the mystery of the first language.

Second, the destruction of multilingualism will lead to the loss of multiculturalism. Because a language is not only the main instrument of human communication, it also expresses the world view of those who speak it, their imagination and their ways of using knowledge. And last, the threat to multilingualism is similar to the threat to biodiversity, because many of the worlds endangered plant and animal species today are known only to certain peoples whose languages are dying out. As those people die, they take with them all the traditional knowledge about the environment.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit made a specific plan to protect biodiversity. Therefore the need to protect languages began to be appreciated in the middle of the twentieth century, when language rights were included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, a number of methods have been adopted and projects have been launched to safeguard what is now thought to be a heritage of humanity. These plans and initiatives may not prevent languages from dying out, but at least they will slow down the process and encourage multilingualism.

The language is not just the main instrument of human communication, it is also the world view, the imagination and the ways of using knowledge of human. We can’t prevent the death of languages, however it belongs to one of very meaningful and important thing for human to heighten conscience about language.