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Foreign workers

in rural Japan

lack access to

language schools

More than 40% of qualified instructors are concentrated in Tokyo

By EUGENE LANG and KANA WATANABE, Nikkei staff writers for Nikki Asia :


TOKYO -- Foreign workers in 46% of Japanese municipalities do not have sufficient access to Japanese-language classrooms, as rural areas struggle to procure the necessary number of teachers, Nikkei has learned.

According to a report by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, more than 40% of qualified Japanese instructors are located in Tokyo, where the average student to teacher ratio is about 5.2 to 1. In rural Yamagata prefecture, that figure balloons to 49.2 students per teacher, the worst in the country.

As pandemic border restrictions are eased, foreign workers are once again coming to Japan. The strength of support infrastructure, especially Japanese language education, is vital to their success and well-being.

In June 2019, Japan passed the Act on Promotion of Japanese Language Education to ensure sufficient access to Japanese education across the country for foreign workers and their families. However, the reality in many areas indicates this goal is far from being met.

A worker from Vietnam, who entered the country in 2020 and works at a food processing facility in Yamagata, uses an online video streaming site to study Japanese once or twice a week. "I would rather learn directly from an instructor, but there aren't any schools in the area that are open on Sunday," the person said.

According to the government's report, as of November 2021, 877 of Japan's 1,896 municipalities are so-called Japanese education blank zones, meaning they have not been able to establish enough language schools or programs -- excluding university and similar programs aimed at international students -- to meet the needs of foreign workers.

The number of foreigners living in those underserved municipalities totals 178,000, which accounts for 6% of the 2.82 million living in the country as of June 2021. In four prefectures, including Hokkaido and Okinawa, more than 80% of municipalities are blank zones.

The government offers up to 1.5 million yen ($10,280) per year for the establishment and operation of language schools, but in many areas a lack of teachers is the primary obstacle.

As of November 2021, there were approximately 123,000 learners of Japanese as a second language in Japan, with students at universities and similar schools accounting for 60%. Meanwhile, about 48,000 people are trying to learn the language as they work, at community centers and other local facilities.

There are about 4,900 teachers for such learners in Japan, excluding volunteers, and around 2,200 of them are concentrated in Tokyo -- more than 40%.

The regional gap is wide. Mie prefecture had 48.2 students per teacher, the second-highest figure after Yamagata. Amid labor shortages, the number of foreign workers has doubled in the past 10 years in Yamagata and surged 50% in Mie. Due to the lack of teachers in these areas, many foreigners are forced to study on their own using the internet and various study materials.

"In major cities you can attend classes at a language school while also working at a university, another school, or elsewhere. In rural areas, this lifestyle is not sustainable," said Yumiko Utsumi, professor of Japanese education at Yamagata University.

The June 2019 education act's primary principle is to maximize opportunities to receive Japanese language education. The culture agency has a website with assistance in 16 languages, and some municipalities have set up remote learning opportunities. But some feel that, compared with in-person learning, remote learning has drawbacks such as difficulty concentrating.

Other countries have more robust programs for educating foreign workers. According to Fumiya Hirataka, professor of sociolinguistics at Aichi University, Germany has a language program of 600 lessons, 45 minutes each, for immigrants. Each lesson costs only a few dollars, and that fee can be waived in the case of economic hardship.

South Korea also has a Korean Immigration and Integration Program, which immigrants can use to learn language and culture for free for a certain period of time.

The Japanese education act states that employers are responsible for supporting foreign workers' education. However, Junko Majima, professor emeritus at Osaka University, points out that "there has been insufficient debate on the level of Japanese ability to be required, or how the cost should be shared."

A lack of language ability can lead, in some cases, to human rights violations and missing person cases. "When the government and companies ensure learning opportunities, society as a whole benefits," Majima said.