FEATURE: Language help for foreign students in Japan

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - In areas with few children in need of Japanese language instruction, students are taught by specialist teachers who travel from school to school in the region.

This article is the second installment in a series.

In areas with few children in need of Japanese language instruction, students are taught by specialist teachers who travel from school to school in the region.
 “‘Tsu’ and ‘so’ are written starting at the top. ‘Shi’ is written from the bottom.”
 It was Jan. 16, and a Japanese languages class at Masuho Elementary School, a public school in Fujikawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, was getting underway. A sixth-grade boy from China who had enrolled in the school in April last year had moved to a separate classroom, learning to write katakana characters under the tutelage of Satoshi Katahira, 58.
 The student was applying himself to his katakana writing drills. He did not speak any Japanese when he first came to Japan, but said with a smile, “I’m getting the hang of it bit by bit.”
 Katahira operates from Masuho Elementary School and visits three other elementary and junior high schools in the area. Using simple Japanese, he teaches 12 students from countries such as China, Brazil and the Philippines.
 He teaches six students at Masuho — the most of any school — and one to four at each of the other schools, holding one to three sessions per student each week. Some days Katahira drives 30 minutes to an elementary school 20 kilometers away from Masuho.
 According to the Yamanashi Prefectural Board of Education, 394 elementary and junior high school students at 100 schools across the prefecture require Japanese language instruction. The numbers are low compared to Tokyo and prefectures such as Aichi, and the children are dispersed throughout the prefecture. To support them, the board of education has stationed 19 teachers who specialize in Japanese language instruction at 18 base schools.
 One of the schools Katahira visits is Minami-Alps Municipal Nango Elementary School. Only one of the school’s 205 students requires Japanese language instruction.
 “It’s difficult for us to have an instructor placed here because we’re so small. Mr. Katahira is a great help to us,” Principal Toshiki Iikubo said.
 Katahira also offers extra instruction based on what students did not understand in class. Each session, he writes a report on students’ progress, writing such comments as “I’d like you to read books in Japanese at home.” He also has the students’ guardians read the reports.
 “As there are so few children, I want to teach each one in an individualized, detailed way,” he said.
 According to a 2016 Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry survey, 7,856 of 9,890 public elementary and junior high schools with children who require Japanese language instruction — or about 80 percent — have fewer than five such students. Schools with few students have limited budgets and personnel, so local governments devise ways to provide support.
 Yamagata city, where fewer than 30 students need Japanese language instruction, has not designated base schools in the same manner as Yamanashi Prefecture. Instead, the city dispatches 10 commissioned support staff to the 12 elementary and junior high schools with such students. 
 The support staff have experience teaching Japanese or hold teaching licenses. They typically teach Japanese to the children in a separate classroom to help them better understand their other classes. Occasionally, the support staff will also assist the children’s parents, such as by acting as interpreters during career counseling sessions or other situations.
 “In municipalities with few students [who need Japanese language instruction], it’s difficult to secure funding and personnel, which gives rise to the possibility that support will be insufficient [for such children],” said Yumiko Utsumi, a professor in Japanese language education at Yamagata University. “Each area faces the future possibility of an increase in the number of children requiring instruction, so government measures are needed.”