Japanese Education in the 21st Century
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    Contents of This Chapter
      1. International-Understanding Education in Ume Elementary School
      2. Sister School Programs
  4. NOTES

Responding to the globalization of the Japanese economy and its economic prosperity in the mid-1980s, the government has supported international-understanding education, foreign language education, and international exchange programs, in addition to education for Japanese students living overseas and Japanese returnee children.  This chapter will analyze how schools have developed international-understanding and foreign language education, and how the foreign-exchange programs have worked for foreign students in Japan.  Furthermore, it will discuss supplementary Japanese education for Japanese children living abroad, their acculturation process, and remedial education for returnee children in Japan.


Responding to the increasing international exchange of goods, people, and information in the 1980s, Prime Minister Nakasone declared his intent to transform Japan into an international state (kokusai kokka), and the term “kokusaika” (internationalization) became popular among all sectors of society.1  During the period of economic prosperity and a strong yen, more Japanese people than ever went abroad for travel, study, and work, while an unprecedented number of foreigners came to Japan.  Many Japanese have friends and relatives who live abroad, and have people from other countries as neighbors and co-workers.

In its 1987 report, the National Council on Education Reform (Rinkyōshin) recommended the internationalization of education.  It recommended the promotion of 1) international-understanding education, 2) foreign language education, 3) international exchange in education, culture, and sports, 4) foreign student exchanges, 5) Japanese language programs, and 6) education for Japanese students living overseas and Japanese returnee children (Monbushō 1989:59).

The 1989 Course of Study for 1992-2001 cited international-understanding education as a means of following the Rinkyōshin’s 1987 recommendation.  The government promoted 1) international-understanding education to prepare students for the twenty-first century, 2) international communication in education, culture, and sports, and 3) international cooperation and contributions for training people in developing countries through UNESCO, the OECD and other non-governmental organizations.  The Central Education Committee proposed in 1996 that the government should help students 1) acquire broader perspectives and understandings of different cultures, 2) establish a Japanese national identity, and 3) have basic skills in foreign languages (Monbushō 1996:408-410). 


International-understanding education began as an initiative of UNESCO.  Since 1969, UNESCO has endorsed the Associated Schools Project in Education for International Understanding, and in 1974 issued “The Recommendation Concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education Relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” (UNESCO 1969; 1974).  In Japan, the 1974 report of the Central Education Committee supported the “basic aims of international exchange of education, academics, and cultures.”  However, it was only after the 1987 report of the Rinkyōshin that the MOE implemented nationwide international-understanding education in order to instruct students on becoming a new Japanese citizen with international perspectives and experiences for the 21st century.  The MOE subsidizes public funds for government-designated schools for the promotion of international-understanding education.

Students learn about foreign cultures in their social science classrooms.  Starting in 2002, international-understanding education has been also taught in a new subject, “integrated study” (sōgōtekina gakushū no jikan).  English-conversation lessons in elementary schools, taught as a part of integrated study, is regarded as an important part for international-understanding education.

Students become more familiar with foreign cultures when they are directly involved with them, for example, by cooking foods from other lands, and playing with the toys that are popular in other countries.  Students learn foreign languages more quickly by speaking with and writing letters to people who already are fluent in that language.

Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in middle schools and high schools are native English-speaking teachers who teach students about their native countries, in the course of teaching English conversation.  Foreign students and resident foreigners can be invited to schools.  Japanese returnees from overseas can discuss their experiences abroad.  Using e-mails and the Internet, students can research foreign countries, and communicate with people living in any country in the world.  Some cities have established relationships with schools in their sister cities so that students can correspond through e-mails and letters.

Elementary schools teach children about foreign countries and cultures through special school events, and fund-raisers for schools in developing countries, and through regular social studies classes.  International-understanding education is currently taught through a few school-specific events, except in social studies courses.  More programs and classes on foreign culture have been taught since integrated study was introduced in April 2002.  Third to sixth graders have three unit-hours a week for integrated study, which can be allocated for international-understanding education.

Currently, many schools are able to transform vacant classrooms into computer labs, and an international-exchange room.  The international-exchange room can be a center for international-understanding education, and can be used for special events or for study.  Some schools have a student committee for the international-exchange program.  For example, in 1998, Hachinohe Elementary School’s committee for international exchange consisted of ten fourth- to sixth-graders, who were in charge of arranging a special classroom for international exchange, and organizing a school event for international exchange.

The majority of schools organize a special school event for the international exchange program once or twice a year.  ALTs are often invited to speak about their homelands.  Foreigners living in Japan, returnees, or former participants in the Japan Overseas Volunteers Program are also invited to speak.  The students sing songs, play games in English, and see pictures or slides.

Most schools collect donations for humanitarian organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Red Cross.  A student council collects used telephone cards, postcards, and stamps for UNESCO and UNICEF.  The student council in Jōken Elementary School in Marugame collected 10 yen from each student, used pencil cases, notebooks, pictures and stationery.  They collected seven boxes of items, and sent them to elementary schools in China.

International-Understanding Education in Ume Elementary School

Ume Elementary School in Marugame was designated as an Associated School for Research on the Education of Foreign Students for the 1998-9 and 1999-2000 school years.2  The school of 700 students has had foreign students since 1994, and in 1999 the school had six students from Peru, one student from Brazil, and one student from China.3 This school sponsors more programs and events for international-understanding education than other schools because it has both foreign students and the state funding for international-understanding programs.

In 1997, the school converted an unused room into an international exchange room, called “Amigo & Amiga.”  This room is a small museum of the world, with pictures, clothes, stamps, books, money, toys, and musical instruments, in addition to a small library.  It has a large section on Peru because the school has had Peruvian students since 1994.  This room is open to all students who are interested in learning about other countries, and is also used for the annual World Orientation event.

For World Orientation, all students assemble in the international exchange room and form groups.  Each group is assigned a set of questions about the world, and competes with other groups by solving the questions together.  The monthly school newsletter, Buenos Tardes, is devoted to foreign students and their countries, and provides general information about the world.  One teacher, who had taught at a Japanese daily school in Thailand for three years, writes articles about Thailand.  This school paper is read not only by the students, but also by their parents, who learn about their children’s classmates from other countries.

In the 1998-9 school year, the school hosted several special events for international understanding, and provided many opportunities for foreign students to talk about their homelands.  First graders learned greetings in different languages, including Spanish from one of the Peruvian students.  Second graders listened to a guest speaker’s talk about his life and experiences in Brazil.  Third graders learned children’s songs from all over the world, including an Andean folksong and a Peruvian folkdance.  Fourth graders played with Peruvian toys, and taught first graders how to play with these toys.  Fifth graders learned how to cook Peruvian foods from the mother of one of the Peruvian students.  A British teacher, the Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), was invited to talk about England, and played a game with the sixth graders. 

One teacher brought notebooks that the students had made or donated to elementary school students in Nepal, and showed a video of Nepalese students using these notebooks.  In 1998, students collected 72 pairs of shoes, 36 balls of yarn, and 316 telephone cards to be sent to children in Nepal.

Middle schools teach international understanding through regular classes, such as Chinese poetry in Japanese language arts, geography, history, civics, and English.  Many middle schools have an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), a native-English speaker who regularly teaches English conversation as well as foreign cultures in English classes.  For most students, one of the few foreigners they see regularly is their ALT for English classes.  Also, with free access to the Internet, providing students an international-understanding education becomes easier. 

High schools teach about foreign cultures and world studies in English, history, geography, political science and economics, contemporary society, and Japanese language arts classes.  The students learn about the interdependence of the global system, the environment, and human rights from international perspectives.  Many high schools have student clubs for English conversation and international exchange.  In addition, some high schools have field trips abroad, and foreign student programs.  Recently, some high schools offer international studies courses.  Jōsei High School in Marugame has an international studies course.  The school offers a three-week home-stay program in Canada, the United States, or England every year.  They also have an English conversation club, an English club, and a Chinese club.4 

Sister School Programs

The sister school program is one of the best ways to establish relationships with students in other countries.  Many Japanese cities currently have sister cities.  About twenty middle school students in Marugame take a 10-day trip to San Sebastian, Marugame’s sister city in Spain every summer.  Many cities in Japan have sister cities abroad.  However, only a few have established sister school programs.  The students in sister schools exchange letters and gifts.  Nowadays the Internet and e-mails make it easier than ever to communicate over long distances.  Sister school programs should be given a larger role in teaching international understanding. 

Since 1993, Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture has been the sister city of Federal Way, Washington.  Six elementary schools and one middle school found sister schools in Federal Way.5  Sanjō Elementary School became the sister school of Lake Grove Elementary School in 1993.  Sanjō Elementary School sent students’ letters, pictures, stationery, videos of the school and the city, calendars, comic books, toys, newspapers and other items to Lake Grove Elementary School.  Lake Grove sent student letters, Christmas cards, popular magazines, school papers, music tapes, popular toys and other items. 

Meanwhile, both schools display these gifts in their international exchange classrooms, and created a student committee for international exchange.  The two schools decided to hold simultaneous environmental awareness events for their communities.  On October 28-29, 1994, Lake Grove Elementary School students participated in a community clean-up, while their counterparts at Sanjō Elementary School collected aluminum cans for recycling and had an all-student meeting called the “SL Fureai (“bringing Sanjō and Lake Grove together”) Meeting.”  At Sanjō Elementary School, students invited two native English speakers to give a talk, counted the number of cans that the students had collected, watched a slide show, and played a game.  Through the cultural exchanges, the students had direct exposure to different cultures, and they learned how to communicate with students on the other side of the world. 

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Almost all students take six years of English in middle school and high school.  Nevertheless, Japanese people have a reputation as poor English speakers.  English language education emphasizes reading and writing, and underestimates the importance of spoken proficiency.  Realizing the importance of conversational skills in international society, the government launched the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program in 1987 to invite native speakers of English as foreign language assistant teachers.

The JET Program has Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), Coordinators of International Relations (CIRs), and Sports Exchange Advisors.  More than 90 percent of all participants of the JET programs are ALTs.  CIRs are placed in prefectural or municipal administrations to assist with international activities.  ALTs team-teach English conversation with Japanese English teachers.  In July 2001, 5,583 ALTs, mostly English-speaking, were teaching in secondary schools (Monbukagakushō 2003b:396).

ALTs teach students about their own culture and help students speak better English.  They talk about their own countries in class, during recess, and in clubs.  In Marugame, not all middle schools have their own ALT yet, but two ALTs are in charge of three large middle schools and several small ones.  ALTs also go to elementary schools for a special event on the international exchanges once a year or once a trimester.  The ALT in Nishi Middle School made a video about his house and hometown in the United States, and showed it to the class.  He also set up a mailbox where the students posted questions for him, and posted several articles on his school bulletin board.  He gave a quiz on the United States, using a map of the United States when I observed his class on February 26, 1998. 

In Marugame, each high school has one full-time ALT to teach English conversation classes and to supervise the English club.  The presence of ALTs in schools and the community gives students the opportunity to become better acquainted with people from other countries.  In a provincial town like Marugame, ALTs are among the few foreigners with whom the students can converse.  Furthermore, ALTs can talk about Japan when they return home, where they can introduce Japanese culture.  Some ALTs have created student exchange programs in their hometown, and invite Japanese students to the United States through their home-stay program.  The JET Program has been successful in promoting foreign language proficiency and international understanding.

Since April 2000, even before the implementation of the 1998 Course of Study in 2002, elementary school have taught “integrated study,” and ALTs can be dispatched to elementary schools to teach English conversation.  The municipal board of education in Marugame hired a temporary instructor who supervises English clubs in three elementary schools.  Students in the fourth to the sixth grades can choose a club consisting of either sports, hobbies, arts, or study at the beginning of the trimester, and the club meets for one unit-hour a week.

Furthermore, the introduction of English audio comprehension tests in the entrance examination for high schools and colleges has helped students and teachers sharpen their English conversational skills.  For foreign language classes in high schools, a new subject, “Oral communications A, B, C” was added in the 1999 Course of Study for 2003 onward.

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The MOE promotes international exchange programs for students, teachers, researchers, artists, and athletes.  Approximately 5,000 teachers from primary and secondary schools visited overseas schools in 1995 (Monbushō 1996:416).  In 2000, the MOE sent English-language teachers from middle and high schools to universities in English-speaking countries to improve their skills (Monbushō 2000a:291).  The number of Japanese citizens studying overseas has grown rapidly to 76,000 in 69 countries (Monbukagakushō 2003b:407).

The number of foreign students has steadily climbed since 1983 (10,428 foreign students in 1983), when the Japanese government launched a large-scale campaign to bring the number of foreign students to 100,000 by 2001.  The number of foreign students has reached 109,508 in 2003.  Most of them came from Asia (e.g., China 64.7%; Korea 14.5%).  The Japanese government or their native countries sponsored one-fifth of all foreign students.  The percentage of foreign students to all college students is still as low as 3.0 percent (in 2003), compared with 6.6 percent in the United States (in 2001) (Monbukagakushō 2004b:373-377).  In 2002, the MOE created an exam for students wishing to study in Japan that they can take in their own countries.  The MOE has also made the doctoral degree completion process easier, in order to increase the number of foreign students.

Since the relaxation of student visa requirements in 1984, many pre-college students (shūgakusei), mostly from China, have come to Japan to study the Japanese language.  They could legally work four hours a day (28 hours a week) to pay their educational expenses.  However, after 1986, many Chinese migrant workers obtained pre-college student visas to work illegally in Japan (Ito 1995:208).  In 1988, almost half of the students illegally overstayed their visas after graduating from Japanese language schools.  In 1998, two-thirds of the 30,700 pre-college students came from China and one-fourth from South Korea (Komai 2001:58).

The government reinstated visa requirements in 1989 and 1992, and the Immigration Control Bureau now requires a financial statement from each applicant for a pre-college student visa.  According to a 1991 survey of Chinese pre-college students by the Tokyo Government, 93 percent went to Japanese language schools, and 65.1 percent worked part-time jobs.  Estimating from their earnings, many worked an average of 35.4 hours a week.  Seventy-one percent of these students planned to continue studying at a college or other educational institution.  They often worked as waiters or waitress (61.2%), in factories, construction, cleaning (22.8%), and 56.6 percent found jobs through friends (Komai 2001:58-59).  In 2003, 50,473 foreigners were registered as pre-college students (77.0% were Chinese and 13.0% were Koreans) (Hōmushō 2004a).

Foreign students often have difficulty in obtaining a guarantor, finding an apartment, making Japanese friends, and finding a job.  They need a guarantor when they apply for a visa, sign a lease, enter a university, and apply for scholarships or tuition waivers.  Since 1984, Japanese language schools have been allowed to be a guarantor for its students to enter Japan, and that caused a huge growth in their enrollment. The guarantor is without any financial obligation or sanction, and sometimes is known as the “contact person.”  Some critics have questioned the significance of the guarantor system, and have suggested abolishing it (Suhara 1996:9-34). 

Foreign students who are supported by their families and/or by themselves are often very busy working part-time jobs since the cost of living and college expenses are very high, and scholarships are few.  Foreign students encounter prejudice and discrimination, despite human rights education and initiatives.  Furthermore, not only is it difficult to obtain a Ph.D. in humanities and social science, but Japanese diplomas are not yet recognized abroad, and Japanese companies are not very enthusiastic about hiring foreign students. 

Japan is not attractive to foreigners, because of the high cost of living, the language barrier, and the poor job prospects, especially after the collapse of the “bubble economy” in 1991.  More scholarships and work-study programs for foreign undergraduates are needed. Host-family programs and community-based international events can promote friendships between Japanese and foreign students.

The number of foreigners learning Japanese grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s when many Japanese companies went abroad to establish subsidiaries, and many foreign workers and students arrived.  Recently, the overseas Japanese language boom has been waning because of Japan’s low economy.

According to a 2003 survey by the Japan Foundation, the number of foreigners studying Japanese overseas amounted to 2.36 million (Kokusai Kōryū 2004), while in Japan, 125,597 foreigners were studying Japanese in 2003 (Hōmushō 2004a).  Foreign students learn Japanese in universities, colleges, and language schools.  Foreign workers learn Japanese at local community centers, with teachers supplied by the municipal administrations and voluntary or private organizations.  Local governments offer free language lessons taught by volunteers from the community.  Japanese primary and secondary schools also make Japanese language education available to foreign children such as Nikkei (Japanese migrants/Japanese descendants of foreign nationality) children, and the descendants of Chinese returnees.

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As the number of Japanese children living abroad increased in the 1960s, the Japanese government started to subsidize their education.6  The MOE sent Japanese teachers to Japanese schools in Taipei in 1962.  In the 1960s and 1970s, many overseas families came from upper and upper-middle classes who worked for large companies and the government.  The majority of them eventually returned to Japan.  Therefore, the purpose of overseas Japanese schools is to help children keep up with schoolwork, and to help them adjust to the Japanese educational system upon their return.

Since the mid-1980s, the number of overseas children has rapidly increased, particularly after many Japanese companies started to expand their operations in foreign countries and to dispatch their employees to their overseas subsidies.  By April 2003, the number of Japanese children enrolled in overseas schools amounted to 20,848 in North America, 16,184 in Asia, 10,564 in Europe, 2,524 in Oceania, 1,273 in Central and South America, 496 in the Middle East, and 573 in Africa.  Among 52,462 Japanese children living overseas, 31.2 percent attend daily Japanese schools, 31.0 percent attend local daily schools and supplementary Japanese schools on Saturdays or after school, while another third 37.8 percent attend only local daily schools (Monbukagakushō 2004b:370-371).

Overseas companies and associations founded the Japan Overseas Educational Foundation in 1971.  With support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MOE, the Japan Overseas Educational Foundation subsidizes daily and supplementary Japanese schools.  In the 2003-4 school year, 1,339 Japanese elementary and middle school teachers were sent to daily and supplementary Japanese schools (Monbukagakushō 2004b:370).  The Japan Overseas Educational Foundation employs local teachers for supplementary schools, and the MOE provides free textbooks for all overseas children, and free correspondence courses for all children except for those who are already attending Japanese daily schools.

There were 82 Japanese daily schools, concentrated in Asia, the Middle East and South America in April 2003.  In these schools, Japanese teachers sent from Japan follow the same curriculum that is taught in Japan.  In addition, 188 supplementary schools operated in the cities with large Japanese population in April 2003.  The majority of children in North America and one-third of children in Europe attend local schools during the week, and attend Japanese supplementary schools on Saturdays or after school.  Furthermore, the Japanese School Foundations have established 13 Japanese private schools in some major cities (Monbukagakushō 2004b:371).  The majority of children in Africa, Oceania, and one-third of children in Europe attend only local schools (Monbushō 2000a:293).

With the rapid increase of overseas families in the 1980s and 1990s, not only elite families but also ordinary families have been employed overseas.  The educational performance of those children depends on family background and their own effort.  Most mothers are homemakers while abroad, and pay close attention to their children’s education.  Therefore, children living abroad usually have a favorable educational environment at home, in terms of socioeconomic status and the educational level of their parents, compared to the average Japanese child in Japan.

Children living overseas take some time to adapt to foreign languages and cultures.  The degree of adaptation of Japanese children to foreign cultures is affected by the age and personality of the child, the length of time abroad, the kind of schools attended, the language spoken at home, and their parent’s adjustment to the culture. 

Minoura proposes that the age of children and their length of stay explain the intercultural adaptability of Japanese children living in the United States (Minoura 1984; 1990).  The study followed interviews with 72 children in 1978.  Minoura categorizes five stages of adaptability: 1) initially, the child does not notice any differences; 2) the child notices differences in behavior but does not or cannot behave like Americans; 3) the child’s cognition and behavior become American, but his or her emotions remain Japanese; 4) the child’s emotions are neither explicitly Japanese and American; and 5) the child’s cognition, behavior and emotions become American. 

More than 90 percent of children who came to the United States before the age of nine, and stayed there for four years or more are most likely to be Americanized, either falling into Category 4 or Category 5.  Younger children who came to the United States, and who stayed longer find cognitive, behavioral and emotional adjustment easier.  Older children, those who came to the United States between the ages of 11 and 15 generally undergo an initial period of adjustment, but gradually adapt.  These children tend to fall into Category 3.  The children who came to the United States at the age of 14 years old or older generally have the most difficult adjustment, and belong to Category 2.  It usually takes three to four years for teenagers to learn the English language, and at least a six-year stay to become fluent and to understand American social relations (Minoura 1990:72-88).

In 1990, the Research Group for Intercultural Education conducted a major survey of Japanese children living overseas.  According to the survey, the children spoke Japanese at home, but those who attended local schools on weekdays may use the foreign language with their siblings.  Children in Japanese daily schools usually take five years to adapt to the local culture and to make friends, while children in Japanese supplementary schools take three years.  The age of the child, the length of stay, and the degree of their mother’s adaptation affect the degree of the children’s acculturation (Ibunka 1990). 

Eighty-five percent of children in Japanese daily schools were born in Japan, and 99 percent speak Japanese at home.  Three-fourths of children were satisfied with Japanese daily schools, and understood the classes.  Sixty percent reported that they played only with Japanese children.  The longer they stayed overseas, the more likely the children had local friends.  Children who lived in North America, Australia and New Zealand were more fully integrated into local cultures than those living in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. 

After five years, they tend to have greater interest in community social activities.  Their mothers’ friendships and their involvement in the community influence their children’s assimilation to a greater extent than does the length of stay.  Sixty percent of mothers let their children learn about their new environment, but mostly through books and the media, and not by direct contact with residents.  One-third of mothers encourage their children to make friends in the community. 

However, regional discrepancies persist.  Children living in Europe, the Pacific, and South America are more likely to try to learn a native language than are those in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; they are also more likely to make friends in the Pacific, North America, and South America than in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, Europe and Asia.  The social networks that children create in the countries where they live influence their level of satisfaction, and give them have positive attitudes toward Japanese culture. 

The length of stay and the age of the child affect the child’s adjustment.  Those children who attend local schools during the week adapt to local culture far more easily than those who attend Japanese schools.  It usually takes three years to understand the classes in local schools, to build a social network, and to adapt local cultural practices.

More than 80 percent of children who have lived overseas for at least three years understand most of what their teachers and friends say.  Forty percent of those who have been abroad for less than three years report that they understand most of what is being said.  Older children are more likely to have difficulty understanding their classes.  One-third of middle school students reported that their classes were difficult, regardless of the duration of their stay.  Some enroll in cram schools (15%), join volunteer activities (15%), sports and cultural clubs (53%), and play with friends (48%) after school.

Ninety percent of mothers speak to their children in Japanese at home; 79 percent of children speak to their mother in Japanese.  Those children who left Japan when they were young are less inclined to speak Japanese.  For children who left Japan before the age of five, 42 percent speak only in Japanese, and eight percent of them speak only the foreign language at home.  In contrast, 81 percent of children who left Japan at the age of 11 or older speak only Japanese at home.  After five years, 16 percent of children speak both Japanese and the local language at home.  After seven years, 7.4 percent of children speak only a foreign language at home.  The majority of middle school students (79%) who have been overseas for less than three years speak only Japanese at home (Ibunka 1990).

In the United States and its territories, there are three public daily Japanese schools in New York City, Chicago and Guam Island.  In addition to the four private daily Japanese schools, there are 29 supplementary Japanese schools in major metropolitan areas and 47 small-sized ones.  Japanese children, except in the New York, Chicago and Guam schools, attend local schools.  Many children in large cities also attend supplementary Japanese schools on Saturdays.  Japanese students who have just entered the United States are usually classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) children.  They are usually placed in the English as Second Language (ESL) classes.

Japanese first, second, and third graders usually spend two or three years in ESL classes, while those in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades take four years to graduate from ESL classes.  They are pulled from academic classes to learn English, while taking regular classes in arts, music, and physical education.  Sometimes, an ESL teacher or teacher’s aide attends a regular class with the children to help them.  Some states provide bilingual education for Japanese children.  In 1995, the Torrance school district in California had 1,143 children whose native language was Japanese, including 639 LEP Japanese children.  The district hired six bilingual teachers and 12 teachers’ aides to give English instruction to these children (Satō 1997:114-119).

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Returnee children (kikokushijo) are defined as “children who lived overseas for one year or more, and have returned to Japan within three years.”  In the 2002-3 school year, 10,767 Japanese children returned to Japan after a long-term overseas stay (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  The majority of children who are living abroad because of a parent’s job will return to Japan.  These elementary and middle school returnees are usually admitted into the same grade in Japanese schools.  If they have trouble in Japanese language, they may be temporarily placed into a lower grade. 

Re-adaptation to Japanese culture and school is particularly difficult for those who lived overseas for many years.  The children who were enrolled in local schools sometimes show lower academic achievement, especially in Japanese language arts and social studies.  Cultural conflicts and misunderstandings can also pose challenges for returnee children.  

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Japanese returnees were regarded as “culturally and academically handicapped children” who needed remedial education.  The 1962 survey by the MOE found that Japanese returnees lagged far behind in academic subjects and that almost half of them re-entered Japanese schools one grade level behind that of their age group.  In 1965, the MOE established a special class for returnees in one middle school affiliated with Tokyo Gakugei University.  Since 1967, the MOE has funded government-designated schools to research for the best way to educate returnee children.

The 1974 survey by the MOE found that students who attended local schools during the week and lived overseas for a long time performed less well academically than did those who attended Japanese daily schools.  The Central Council of Education in 1974 recommended subsidies for Japanese daily schools, for supplemental Japanese schools overseas, and for Japanese schools in Japan that admit returnees.  Responding to the increasing number of returnees, a high school affiliated with the International Christian University, Gyōsei International High School, and Dōshisha International High School were established.  Since 1978, the Center Schools for the Education of Returnees received research funds.  Researchers are developing curricula and teaching materials that are best suited to the needs of these children.

The focus of the research on education for children living overseas and returnees shifted from remedial education in the 1970s and the early 1980s to intercultural education in the late 1980s.  In the 1990s, the education of returnee children emphasized the preservation of their international perspectives, rather than their re-adaptation.  In 1987, the National Council on Education Reform (Rinkyōshin) submitted the report, “Measures for children living overseas and returnees, and measures for Japanese schools on opening up to the international community.”  The report recommended that the government should develop 1) international perspectives, 2) a quota system for admission into high schools and colleges, 3) a credit transfer system, 4) a system of school counselors and teachers for Japanese language education, and 5) an international school for Japanese students and returnees.  In order to implement the recommendations, the 1989 Course of Study states, “for those returnee children, [teachers] help them adapt to Japanese school life and guide them to make use of their experiences from abroad.”  The returnees are expected to be a Japanese national with an internationalized perspective, and to be an international person for the 21st century.

During the “internationalization” boom of the 1980s, the rhetoric about returnees in popular magazines changed, and in 1986 the returnees were described both as a new bilingual “brand of kid” and as a rootless minority (Satō 1997:230).  Goodman argues that returnee children are privileged, not marginal, and that they constitute a “new elite” with the international skills and perspectives from their experiences in foreign countries (Goodman 1990).

Returnee children perform less well on entrance examinations because of their time abroad.  Their parents, who are often employees of large companies, successfully lobbied for a special quota for college admission and public subsidies for remedial education for their children.  Many prestigious colleges, public and private, have a special admission quota for the returnees who came back to Japan within two to three years.  They are considered “special students” with an unusual background, and therefore, they are eligible for special admission.  They usually take a foreign language exam, write an essay, and are interviewed.  Some parents deliberately choose to remain overseas in order to give this advantage to their children.  It raises the question of fairness because other Japanese students have to go through “examination hell” to enter high-ranked universities.  The quota for returnee children is acceptable, as long as it is not abused.

Remedial education for returnee children is necessary because many have a hard time becoming accustomed to life in Japan.  The number of children who require Japanese language education reached a record high of 2,886 in 1,239 schools in 2003 (Monbukagakushō 2004c).  Many returnee children attend schools that have special programs for them.  Many schools in metropolitan areas have a tradition of accepting Japanese returnees, and many of them were formerly government-designated schools for returnee children.

Returnee children living in metropolitan areas have a better chance to attend schools specializing in remedial education.  However, the majority of returnee children return to public elementary, middle, and high schools, and do not receive much special help.  In recent years, many returnee children have been found to have adequate Japanese language skills because of tutoring from their parents.  Instead, they struggle with the unfamiliar subject such as calligraphy and the vaulting horse in physical education.

The MOE provides teachers in schools that accept returnees with educational guidance, workshops, and information about overseas schools.  The MOE also subsidizes private schools that accept returnees.  Teachers of returnee children have described them as positive, assertive, outgoing, articulate, individualistic, versatile, independent, and creative.  On a less positive note, these students are described as uncooperative, self-centered, arrogant, moody, and unmotivated (Minoura 1996; Satō 1997:195).  Teachers seem to see returnee children as more western than Japanese in attitude.  Such a perception may arise from a stereotype.  Returnee children have individual characteristics, but their cultural experiences shape their way of thinking and personality.  Teachers should refrain from stereotyping these students and arrive at an understanding of their experiences.  Learning about the cultures of their students can help teachers understand them better.

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Since the mid-1980s, the government has sponsored the internationalization of Japan, and its educational system.  The 1989 Course of Study for 1992-2001 makes provision for international-understanding education, as proposed by the National Council on Education Reform (Rinkyōshin), in order to instill an international understanding in the rising generation of Japanese children.  In practice, students learn about foreign cultures and countries mainly through textbook-centered pedagogy in social science classes, and rarely have direct access to people from other countries.  Many international exchange activities are usually one-time school events, such as presentations or games led by people from abroad. 

Since April 2002, international issues have been one topic within integrated study.  School teaches international cultures through debates, research, role-plays, and presentations.  The MOE recommends English conversation classes as part of integrated study in elementary schools.  The expansion of sister school programs and of Assistant Language Teachers programs will improve the students’ language proficiency and international understanding.  In these programs, students write letters or send e-mails to students in sister schools or converse with foreign teachers in schools.

With the overseas expansion of Japanese companies since the mid-1980s, the number of children living overseas reached 50,000 by 2001.  The majority of them will eventually return to Japan.  Among those children, one-third attend daily Japanese schools and another one-third attend supplementary Japanese schools on Saturdays or after school.  It seems that the children in Japanese schools may take about five years and the children in Japanese supplementary schools take about three years to become accustomed to life in a different country.  The age of the child, the length of the time abroad, and the mother’s adaptation to the new culture affect the extent to which the child assimilates.

Japanese returnee children (10,767 in the 2002-3 school year) receive remedial education in order to adapt to Japanese schools and culture.  Those who live in metropolitan areas are more likely to attend schools specializing in remedial education for returnee children.  In 1987, the National Council on Education Reform (Rinkyōshin) recommended special education for returnee children in order for them to develop international perspectives.  In the 1990s, education for returnee children emphasized preserving their international perspectives.  Many prestigious colleges have an admissions quota for the returnees who returned to Japan within two to three years from their stay overseas.


1.    The internationalization of education (Ehara 1992; Lincicome 1993; Hood 2001) and the JET program (McConnell 2000) are discussed in English.  The theories and practices for international-understanding education are collected in the Kokusai rikai kyōiku jiten (The Encyclopedia of International-Understanding Education) (Ishizaka 1993).  The introduction of intercultural education in Japan is summarized in Ebuchi 1997 and Tanaka et al. 1990. 

2.    This case study is based on class visits and interviews with teachers in Ume elementary school on February 21, 2001, in addition to a school report on international-understanding education, and school bulletins.  See also Case Study 10.1 Foreign Students in Ume Elementary School.

3.    Since the 1990 revised Immigration Control Law, Japanese descendants have been allowed to stay and work in Japan unconditionally.  In 1998, Japanese descendants from South America (e.g., 179 Peruvians and 215 Brazilians) constituted the majority of the 870 foreigners living in Marugame (Marugame-shi 1999).  Since the 1990s, several elementary schools in Marugame have admitted students from South America.

4.    Interviews with an English teacher and a principal at Jōsei High School were conducted on March 17, 1998.

5.    The information about the sister-school system in Hachinohe City is provided through personal communication and a report by the principal of Hachinohe Elementary School in January 1998.

6.    Research on Japanese children living overseas and returnee children is based upon intercultural education, acculturation, and identity, through ethnographic studies and interviews (Satō 1997; Minoura 1984; 1990; 1996; Kajita 1997; Minami 2000).  White studied the adaptation of returnee children through interviews (White 1988) and Goodman described the education of returnee children through his ethnological study (Goodman 1990).

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