One Connections-supported nonprofit is helping immigrant children forge a new life in Japan.
Japan might cease to exist. That’s what Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last May in a tweet about an issue that is rarely discussed by billionaires.
The country’s declining birthrate and population could lead to its extinction, Musk warned. Japan has an increasingly urgent need for immigrants to fill job vacancies.
While thousands of newcomers arrive in Japan every year on worker visas, their children often fall through the cracks. About 10,000 foreign children of compulsory school age in Japan were not in school as of May 2021, according to an education ministry survey. And nearly three-quarters of public high schools have no systems in place to accept foreign students living in Japan, the Nikkei newspaper recently reported.
Japanese high schools have entrance examinations, similar to those of universities, which require knowledge of kanji and other subjects taught in Japanese schools. Without the necessary support, some 10 percent of foreign students do not make it to high school, 10 times the figure for middle school students overall.
The Multicultural Center Tokyo tries to bridge that gap. The nonprofit helps foreign kids seeking to enter Japanese high school overcome cultural, language and educational hurdles.
“Children with foreign nationality have to take the same entrance exams for public high schools [as Japanese students],” explains Noriko Hazeki, the center’s head. “Some high schools are making efforts to accept these kids, but it’s not enough.”
The Multicultural Center Tokyo was established in 2001 and operates the Tabunka Free School, located in Arakawa and Suginami wards, for kids from 15 years old who have graduated from junior high school in their home country.
“Japanese is the toughest. I could not speak a word when I came to Japan,” says Song Mingyuan, a 17-year-old Chinese boy from Inner Mongolia who joined Tabunka in April 2022. “The atmosphere here is relaxed and friendly. I don’t feel nervous about making mistakes.”
Song, who studies at the Arakawa campus, located on the second floor of an apartment building, now speaks Japanese confidently. His goal is to enroll in a Tokyo high school this April and eventually study science at university.
“The teachers here speak in easy-to-understand Japanese,” says Song. “They explain things I don’t understand, so my language ability gradually improved.”
Sixteen-year-old Ernest Efosa Ehibor arrived in Japan from Nigeria with his 18-year-old brother last March to join their parents.
“Teachers here will repeat something until you get it,” he says. “I’d like my friends who don’t know Japanese to come here and learn.”
Like Song, Ehibor has his sights set on college.
“I really want to go to university to become a veterinarian,” he says.
Last year, the Club’s Connections group donated ¥800,000 to the center.
“Connections chose to support the Multicultural Center Tokyo because they perform a crucial service helping immigrants’ children integrate into Japanese society, but get limited support from Japanese institutions,” says Lina Tanaka-Raffone, a member of Connections’ charities committee. “We were also impressed with their level of care towards the children and the impact they are having on the lives of these children who will be important contributors to the future of Japan.”
The center provides all-day prep classes for Japanese, English and math to help students prepare for high school entrance exams. As most students will apply for high school within a year, they have to start learning to read and write Japanese as soon as they enroll. And because Japanese can be a challenging subject for kids born overseas, they must do well on the math and English parts of the entrance exams to make up for any grading shortfall. Some 40 children attend the school and, over the past three years, all who took high school entrance exams passed.
Students also learn how to navigate everyday life in Japan and about traditional culture. The center organizes career counseling, parent-teacher meetings, field trips and visits to high schools.
Tuladhar Raghav, 24, is a Tabunka intern who came to Japan from Nepal eight years ago. His parents suggested he attend an Indian high school in Japan, but he chose a local public school instead. After an adjustment period, he learned to enjoy the academic environment. Now a senior at Tokyo University of Information Sciences, he helps teach math and assists Tabunka with its IT needs.
“When you first come to Japan, you don’t know anything—language, culture, anything,” he explains. “The Tabunka school teaches you how to survive here.”
Visit the Connections page of the Club website for details on the group’s support of local charities.
Words: Tim Hornyak
Images: Kayo Yamawaki
Top Image: (l–r) Song Mingyuan, Tuladhar Raghav and Ernest Efosa Ehibor