NPO leader hopes to promote intercultural cohesion in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroko Kobayashi speaks to The Yomiuri Shimbun.

A growing number of children in Japan have foreign roots, with one or both parents having a non-Japanese background. Such children can often face societal challenges, such as having to learn Japanese, and some observers say there is a lack of support systems.

Hiroko Kobayashi, who has headed a nonprofit organization (NPO) that has helped nurture such young people for more than 20 years, recently spoke with The Yomiuri Shimbun about the status quo, and how we can help children with international backgrounds.

Kobayashi was born in 1948 in Aichi Prefecture. After raising three children, she began volunteer work with kids in around 2000. Five years later, she founded with colleagues a Tokyo-based NPO called Minna no Ouchi — meaning “home for everyone” — and became the organization’s leader in 2017. Since 2019, Kobayashi has served on the Tokyo metropolitan government’s committee for intercultural cohesion.

According to Justice Ministry statistics, as of the end of 2021 there were about 2.76 million non-Japanese living in Japan, hailing from 194 countries and territories around the globe. Of them, about 294,000 were age 18 or younger. About 95,000 children had Chinese roots, followed numerically by children from Brazil, the Philippines, South Korea and others.

Kobayashi on how NPO helps

Hiroko Kobayashi: Our organization runs Kodomo Club Shinjuku, an evening study class for elementary and junior-high school students with foreign roots. About 25 children gather to learn Japanese, English, math and other subjects from volunteer teachers, including university students. Often, these kids find it difficult to stay up to speed with regular school classes, but their records gradually improve as they attend our lessons.

The children have various international backgrounds: Some were born in their parents’ home countries, then traveled here with their families, while others were born in Japan to non-Japanese parents. A number of other children have a Japanese parent and a non-Japanese parent. There are also youngsters being raised by non-Japanese mothers who have separated from Japanese spouses. If the mother can’t speak Japanese very well, the child’s Japanese vocabulary can suffer and they often also struggle to become proficient in the mother’s native language.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: According to a survey by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, there were about 58,000 elementary, junior high or high school children who needed special lessons in Japanese in fiscal 2021 — a 70% rise on fiscal 2010. About 10% of such children do not receive support at school.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kobayashi: For example, some children understand the word “kuroi” (black) but not “kuroppoi” (blackish). Others may not know such flower-related expressions as “shibomu” (wilt, wither) or “guttarisuru” (wither, languish). As a result, they struggle to stay abreast of classmates from early in elementary school.

Their vocabulary may be limited, but they can speak Japanese well. That’s why the teachers and children often don’t realize there’s a problem, and teachers can think that a child’s poor academic performance is down to not working hard enough. If we do nothing, it’s highly likely such kids won’t be able to graduate from high school and become independent. We continue to run our evening classes because we don’t want such people to live in poverty in Japan.

Yomiuri: About 500 children ranging in age from fourth grade elementary schoolers to third year junior high schoolers have attended your organization’s evening classes. In 2017, you opened the Ibasho Minna no Ouchi facility for children, which they can use as a place for study or interaction.

Kobayashi: Some children may appear to be Japanese and have Japanese-type names. But they can often feel as though there is a wall around them because of differences in their home environments.

Some children with a foreign background have worries that are particular to themselves. For example, some who have come here from another country start to wish they could live here permanently because the country is safe and clean. But it can be extremely difficult for them to obtain a full-time working visa, even though they understand Japanese customs and can speak Japanese fluently. If such children can eventually work here officially, it would be beneficial to them, and Japanese society. There are no official statistics, but I believe there are many such children. I hope the government will consider what it can do for them.

Yomiuri: Your organization has held a foreign-picture-book reading event for Japanese parents and children at a library in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, for more than 10 years.

Kobayashi: Last fiscal year, the event featured books from Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines. We asked mothers of students who had completed our classes to read out books from their countries. Our graduates and library staff workers then translated the stories into Japanese and relayed the meaning.

The mothers say they really love this experience; it seems that they can gain confidence by taking part in Japanese society using their own languages. It’s important for them to contribute to society as part of the workforce but also to be part of something that respects their cultures.

Yomiuri: Many people from Ukraine are coming to Japan due to Russia’s invasion of their country.

Kobayashi: Support for Ukraine is certainly important, but we must remember there are many other foreigners living in Japan. We can buy various products and enjoy a number of reasonably priced services thanks to workers with foreign backgrounds who work low-paid jobs at bento boxed lunch factories, cleaning firms and other places. I’d like more people to be aware of this.

Looking ahead, Japan will increasingly have to rely on people from overseas. If they can live happily here, then society will remain stable. If there is a foreign person living near you, I hope you will have some interaction with them. Small deeds by each and every individual will lead to a cohesive intercultural society.

Reporter’s reflection

It’s common now to see non-Japanese people working at convenience stores or restaurants in Japan. However, having a more international population does not necessarily lead to intercultural cohesion. Kobayashi’s words make us keenly aware of the need for everyone to be open and accepting.