Tochigi Pref. steps up support for veteran Japanese-language tutors to go online

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kyoko Okubo uses a computer at the Tochigi International Association in Utsunomiya to teach Japanese to Zamzam Seyedeh Fatemeh on Dec. 6.

UTSUNOMIYA — To provide foreign residents with more opportunities to learn Japanese, the Tochigi prefectural government is stepping up its support for expanding online classes, including bringing older tutors up to speed on the technology.

The government has been holding workshops since September on the basics of using computers and video-conferencing apps, while also looking to train a new generation of young tutors to fill positions in a number of municipalities left vacant during the pandemic.

At the Tochigi International Association in Utsunomiya on Dec. 6, Japanese-language tutor Kyoko Okubo used a computer video-chat app to respond to an inquiry from an Iranian student, Zamzam Seyedeh Fatemeh.

“I’d like to know what kind of Japanese words I should use when explaining about Iranian food in a conversation,” she asked in rudimentary Japanese.

Okubo, who has been teaching Japanese in Utsunomiya for nearly 20 years, started providing online lessons in October. During a trip to Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, Okubo met a Vietnamese ryokan inn employee who told her that she wanted to study Japanese, but it was difficult because Utsunomiya was not within commuting distance.

This prompted Okubo, 76, to sign up for a course offered by the prefecture and the association on how to provide online lessons. As part of the course, Okubo learned how to use a computer and the Zoom video conferencing system.

Upon completing the course, the association introduced Okubo to Zamzam, who was keen to take online lessons. Okubo has been teaching her one-on-one about once a week since October.

Zamzam lives in Utsunomiya, but it takes her 20 minutes to travel to the association by bicycle. She also has her hands full raising two daughters. “I can easily take online classes at home while looking after my children,” the 39-year-old said.

Initially, Okubo received technical help from association staffers, but she has become used to teaching online and can now teach from home. “It’s getting harder to go out all the time due to my age,” Okubo said. “But I can allot a good amount of my free time to teaching from home.”

Canceled classes

According to a prefectural government survey conducted in fiscal 2020, 16 municipalities and 11 volunteer groups in the prefecture offered a total of about 60 classes. The classes were either free or cheaper than private schools and helped foreigners learn about Japanese customs and culture, in addition to the language.

But during the coronavirus pandemic many classes were canceled. This led to a 60% dip in the number of foreigners studying Japanese in the prefecture, with numbers falling from 2,712 in 2019 to 1,029 in 2020.

Japanese language classes are not available in nine of the prefecture’s municipalities: Yaita, Kaminokawa, Mashiko, Motegi, Ichikai, Haga, Shioya, Nasu and Nakagawa. Concerned that foreigners would be unable to study Japanese even if they wanted to, the prefecture’s international affairs department began its online-class initiative.

But many of the tutors are volunteers, and their teaching abilities vary widely. Furthermore, 70% are in their 60s and 70s. The prefecture is thus trying to bring the tutors’ up to speed while also nurturing younger teachers. Since fiscal 2020, the prefectural government has offered two types of workshops, targeting both experienced active educators and those who wish to learn how to teach. This fiscal year, between 20 and 30 people attended the workshops, which are run by Japanese language education experts.

The prefectural government and the association also offer advice and guidance to municipalities that lack Japanese-language classes, and hold symposiums for elementary and junior high school teachers who teach foreign children in those municipalities.

“The language classes allow [foreigners] to consult about issues that arise in daily life, too, and there is a demand for both face-to-face and online teaching,” an international department official said. “By supporting both types of classes, we hope to create an environment in which foreign residents can live with peace of mind without feeling excluded.”