Chuo Onlineロゴ

  • twitter-icon
  • facebook-icon
  • rss-icon


Coexistence Required in Policies to Promote Japanese Language Education

Yasuhiro Nakagawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Japanese Language Education and Multicultural Education

"In times of contagion, therefore, what we do or don't do is no longer just about us. This is the one thing I wish for us never to forget, even after this is over."

This passage is taken from How Contagion Works, a book written by the Italian author Paolo Giordano (translated by Ryosuke Iida, Hayakawa Publishing). He wrote that the immigrants did not receive the important news related to COVID-19. Although the context is different, I interpreted it as a message relevant to the policy of Japanese language education, which provides foreigners with Japanese language support, yet lacks attention to individuals and perspectives of coexistence.

Postwar Japanese language education has developed in response to the social demands of each era; for example, acceptance of returnees from China and Indochinese refugees in the 1970s, the increase of Japanese Latin Americans in the 1990s, and the 2008 plan for accepting 300,000 international students. Due to factors such as the high level of interest in Japanese culture, the number of people studying Japanese overseas is approximately 3.85 million in 142 countries and regions. Furthermore, Japanese learners in Japan are becoming increasingly more diversified with categories such as international students, foreign workers, and children moving to Japan. Until now, Japanese language education has been vaguely regarded as teaching Japanese language to foreigners. However, in addition to focusing on teaching methods, the sociocultural perspective of language acquisition, and multicultural understanding, Japanese language education today is making interdisciplinary advancement and has become a field that also considers political issues such as relationships between native speakers and non-native speakers, disabilities, gender, and identity. Due to the need to assess Japanese language education from a social context, I have in recent years been attending more to research on the life stories of international students and relevant policies, while at the same time conducting practical research at Chuo University. All of my research address social significance of Japanese language education based on the findings from conversation with specific individuals, as well as insights in the fields such as education studies, social studies, and contemporary philosophy. In this article, I would like to touch upon various policies and issues of coexistence (multicultural coexistence) in Japanese language education.

In 2006, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications defined multicultural coexistence as the fact that people of different nationalities and ethnicities recognize each other's cultural differences and live together as members of the local community. Since then, the concept of multicultural coexistence has been actively discussed in the field of Japanese language education. However, when based on essentialism which views culture and identity as fixed, who falls into the category of people of different nationalities and ethnicities is unclear. Furthermore, it is ambiguous as to whether or not recognizing each other's cultural differences goes beyond regional society to include recognition of difference, guarantee of rights, etc., on a national level. For such reasons, the concept of multicultural coexistence has been criticized as weak. Amidst such circumstances, the Japanese Language Education Promotion Act (hereinafter, "the Promotion Act") was executed on June 28, 2019. In terms of legislation, the Japanese government has already adopted the Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance and Coexistence of Foreign Nationals (passed on December 25, 2018; revised on December 20, 2019) and the Enhancement of Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance and Coexistence of Foreign Nationals, (June 18, 2019), and has been advancing policies aimed at realizing a society for coexistence with foreigners. As confirmed by the names of these initiatives, coexistence is a key concept to be pursued under the law.

Unseen forms of coexistence

The Promotion Act consists of 3 chapters and 28 articles. The basic policy is stated in Chapter 2, Article 10. Specific policy examples are scheduled to be announced this month (June 2020). Prior to the announcement, the Japanese government presented a basic policy (draft) consisting of all three chapters, and sought public comments from March to April of this year. About two months have passed, and it does not seem there will be any major revisions. Therefore, from the perspective of coexistence, I would like to consider the main items in Chapters 1 and 2 of the basic policy proposal.

In Chapter 1, the provision entitled "Purpose of Promotion" states the following: "The purpose is to contribute to the realization of a vibrant coexistent society that respects diverse cultures, to encourage exchanges with other countries and regions, and to maintain and develop friendly relationships." In regards to the first half of this statement--"to contribute to the realization of a vibrant coexistent society that respects diverse cultures"--it remains unclear why respect for diverse cultures is a part of promoting Japanese language education and what logic should be used to realize a vibrant coexistent society that respects diverse cultures. Moreover, Chapter 1 also makes the following statement in regards to the obligations of business owners: "Business owners are required to make effort to provide foreign employees and their family members with support related to learning Japanese language, including provision of opportunities to learn Japanese language necessary for their work and daily life." Although this concept seems appropriate to reform the Technical Intern Training System in which malicious business owners have become a social issue, the extent of Japanese language proficiency necessary in the work and daily life of foreigners is left to the discretion of the business owners. For example, if the true goal is a coexistent society, it would be necessary to cultivate Japanese language proficiency to the extent that a foreign laborer could recognize contractual issues and voice objections in some cases. The act of oppressed individuals (foreign laborers) using language to advocate for their rights will bring humanity to oppressors (malicious business owners) who have been possessed by the idea that ownership is equivalent to liberty. This line of thought coincides with the idea of education for freedom as espoused by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.

Chapter 2 addresses the learners of Japanese language in Japan and overseas. The provision on the formulation of guidelines for curriculum development discusses the promotion of Japanese language education overseas. Reference is made to the development and popularization of teaching methods based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR), which is one of the international standards for foreign language education. However, as is well known, the CEFR is based on the concept of multilingualism. The Council of Europe Language Policy Portal considers that multilingualism fosters the ability of individuals to use and learn multiple languages, fosters tolerance for languages, and cultivates values which are the foundation of active acceptance of diversity. In particular, linguistic tolerance is an attitude that accepts variations within the same language (regional/social dialects, and different degrees of fluency/accuracy). In this respect, linguistic tolerance refers to interactions which deviate from language norms, a concept which is compatible with the coexistence and affinity in Japanese language education. It is necessary to proactively incorporate such CEFR concepts into the basic policy for promoting Japanese language education.

Overcoming asymmetry which hinders coexistence

The problem is that the relationship between instructors (Japanese people) and learners (foreigners) is extremely asymmetric. Of course, guaranteeing opportunities for Japanese language education should be welcomed in order to support the lives of foreigners in Japan. As noted by the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani, the relationship of instruction and learning must not be confused with power. However, Karatani has also paradoxically stated that instructors can be in a position of power because it requires the consent of the learner, which means that instructors are actual subordinate to learners. In summary, support for education is built upon a mutual relationship. This idea shows that hesitation toward being on the side of providing education due to social demands is necessary for policy-makers and people (including myself) involved in Japanese language education. Otherwise, Japanese language education would become a monologue in which only the instructor is in control. This will silence learners and eliminate all doubts between the two sides in regards to their relationship. It goes without saying that this will prevent coexistence. In the era of COVID-19, which creates concern for division and exclusionism, the Promotion Act and the basic policy should be positioned not only for learners, but also for all those involved in Japanese language education to reflect on their situation.

It should be noted that Article 10, Item 6 of the Promotion Act states that the Japanese government will review the basic policy approximately every five years and make any necessary changes. Through my research, I will continue to pursue various policies for incorporating coexistence into this law.

Yasuhiro Nakagawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Japanese Language Education and Multicultural Education

He completed his studies in the Graduate School of Humanities, Tokyo Metropolitan University. He holds a PhD in education.

After being dispatched to Vietnam by the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, he taught at the Kanda University of International Studies, served as a Japanese language instructor at the Japan Foundation, Sydney, and taught in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Osaka University of Economics and Law. He assumed his current position in 2017.

His main written works include How do International Students Try to Demonstrate Their Self-Existence at University?, Journal of International Students Education Vol. 23 (awarded the 10th Outstanding Essay Prize by the Japan Association for International Student Education), and Opposing the Movement to Regulate the Form of Regional Japanese Language Education, Horizon of Storytelling: Life Story Review Vol. 3, Serica Syobo, Inc.

As of June 2020, he currently serves as a member of the Academic Journal Editorial Committee at the Association for Language and Cultural Education, and as an Examination and Operation Coordinator at the Society for Teaching Japanese as a Foreign Language.