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Japanese Language

Industry Faces

Struggle to Raise



Japanese language schools are meeting with renewed scrutiny as Japan braces for an influx of foreign workers under new immigration rules set to go into effect in April. In a candid interview, a veteran teacher and founder of one of Tokyo’s most respected Japanese language schools traces the industry’s woes, including a critical teacher shortage, to three decades of expedient, short-sighted government policies.

One of the critical challenges facing Japan as it prepares for an influx of foreign workers under last December’s historic immigration reform is that of providing access to competent language instruction to ensure that those migrants can cope in the workplace and the wider community. We spoke with Yamamoto Hiroko, founder of the 32-year-old KAI Japanese Language School in Tokyo, about the ills that plague her industry and the prospects for meaningful reform.

Japanese Language Schools at a Crossroads

Japan will officially open its doors to unskilled foreign labor in April 2019, with as many as 345,000 workers expected to enter the country over the next five years under the new Specified Skills working visa. The question now is whether Japan is prepared for this influx. The “Comprehensive Measures for the Acceptance and Inclusion of Foreign Human Resources” released by the cabinet on December 25 is little more than a laundry list of challenges waiting to be addressed. Prominent among these is expanded access to quality Japanese language education to “facilitate smooth communication” in the workplace, the classroom, and the community. Given the current uneven state of language instruction in Japan, the government has its work cut out.

According to a 2017 survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the number of Japanese-language students rose by 70% over the previous five years, to 239,000. But the number of teachers rose by only 15%, to 39,600. Of those, about 57% were volunteers, and only 13% were full-time teachers.

Yamamoto Hiroko, who has operated the KAI Japanese Language School in Tokyo for more than 30 years, believes her industry is facing a crisis after years of expedient government policies that condoned the use of Japanese language schools as back doors for migrant labor, indifferent to the quality of education provided.

Japanese language schools (Nihongo gakkō) are private, independently operated language schools. Unlike preparatory language courses offered by Japanese universities to incoming international students, they are outside the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). Instead, they are recognized by the Ministry of Justice on the understanding that they meet the ministry’s basic standards governing hours of instruction, faculty, and so forth. These Justice Ministry–recognized schools (also known as Japanese language institutes) handle the initial stage of the visa application process on behalf of each incoming student by submitting the required paperwork to the Immigration Bureau. If all goes well, the Immigration Bureau then issues the applicant a Certificate of Eligibility that he or she can submit to the local Japanese consulate to receive a student visa.

The number of authorized Japanese language schools has grown rapidly, but in the absence of effective ongoing oversight or assessments, conscientious establishments have found it difficult to compete with those that function mainly as conduits for cheap labor.

Language Schools as Labor Pools

Yamamoto started teaching Japanese in 1983. “At that time, most of the students I taught were either foreign business employees stationed in Japan or refugees from Indochina,” she recalls. “There were still only a handful of Japanese language schools, even in Tokyo. Back then, when Japanese universities didn’t even offer majors in teaching Japanese as a foreign language, most of the schools were run by individuals who had gotten involved in teaching Japanese one way or another, fallen in love with it, and eventually decided to start their own schools.”

Yamamoto opened KAI Japanese Language School in 1987. “That first year, most of our students were from Taiwan and South Korea,” she says. “They were young people who came to Japan to study on their own initiative, hoping to build better lives for themselves.”

Certainly many of the Asian students who enrolled in Japanese language schools around this time did so in hopes of entering a Japanese college or university and applying their newly acquired knowledge and skills back home. But the booming 1980s also witnessed an influx of migrants willing and eager to work in industries like construction and services, where demand for cheap labor was high. Working visas were not issued to unskilled workers, but with the support and sponsorship of a Japanese language school, one could enter as an international student and obtain a permit to work a certain number of hours per week. The number of international students and Japanese language schools grew rapidly.

By the late 1980s, it was becoming apparent that some of these language schools were mainly in the business of providing a conduit and cover for illegal labor (a problem that has reentered the media spotlight in recent years). In 1988, amid mounting criticism, the government abruptly clamped down on the issuance of student visas to Chinese applicants—many of whom had already paid their tuition and fees—precipitating riots and demonstrations at the Japanese consulate in Shanghai. (The controversy gave rise to some early efforts to tighten industry standards, including the establishment of the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education in 1989.)

In the three decades since that incident, the flow of foreign students into Japan has waxed and waned, as immigration authorities have alternately tightened and loosened the screening process in accordance with the latest policy shift.

In 2008, the government launched a program to boost the number of international students in Japan from 120,000 to 300,000 by 2020. As of June 2018, there were already 324,000 foreign residents classified as students by the MOJ. But the number of Japanese language teachers has not kept pace.

“Lately, I’ve often found myself wondering whether the government views Japanese language schools as anything more than a mechanism for importing foreign labor,” says Yamamoto. “For example, the number of international students took off around 2014, just when everyone began talking about ‘critical labor shortages.’ That’s also when we started seeing more and more students who had clearly come to Japan to earn money, not to study. I felt the government was too intent on increasing the total number of international students, with little regard for the quality of education they received.”

Behind the Teacher Shortage

Japanese language schools can be set up as either private business enterprises or educational institutions. While educational institutions can take advantage of generous tax breaks, only a small fraction of authorized Japanese language schools enjoy that status; about 70% (including KAI) are joint-stock companies.

“The Japanese language schools launched in the 1980s were all small, individually owned businesses that were in no financial position to buy the land and school facilities needed to operate a school, which is a requirement for authorization as an educational institution,” explains Yamamoto. While KAI and other schools have expanded over the years, the cost of incorporation as a private educational institution is still prohibitive for most. “Our overhead costs are high because we have to recruit students from abroad and then provide various support services once they arrive in Japan. So, the more conscientiously you run your school, the less likely you are to build up the internal reserves you would need to get incorporated as an educational institution.”

In addition to high overhead costs, Japanese language schools must cope with fluctuations in enrollment caused by continual changes in the government’s immigration-control policies and screening procedures. This makes it difficult to draw up long-term personnel plans. “To adjust to those fluctuations, we have no choice but to make heavy use of part-time instructors,” explains Yamamoto.

Most Japanese language teachers are paid on an hourly basis. According to Yamamoto, the shortage in instructors has driven wages up a bit, but even in central Tokyo, starting rates still hover at about ¥2,000 an hour. Moreover, under the Justice Ministry’s standards, each instructor is permitted to teach no more than 25 hours per week. At today’s typical starting rate, this limits a teacher’s monthly income to around ¥200,000 (less than US $2,000). “Almost all of my male instructors quit to find better-paying work as soon as they begin thinking seriously of marriage,” notes Yamamoto.

To raise teacher salaries, Japanese language schools need to boost their business proceeds, but their options are limited. Other Justice Ministry regulations, including the limit of 20 students per instructor, make it difficult to expand enrollment. Competition from less conscientious schools makes it risky to raise tuition.

Pushing for School Ratings

With immigration reform looming, the government has finally begun to hammer out measures to raise the level of Japanese language education, including stricter standards for Justice Ministry–recognized Japanese language schools. But as long as these schools remain under the jurisdiction of the Immigration Bureau, oversight will inevitably focus on compliance with immigration laws and requirements. Keeping tabs on curriculum and instruction is outside of the bureau’s domain.

“The Ministry of Justice decides whether you can open a Japanese language school, but it’s another matter entirely to follow up with periodic evaluations and separate the good schools from the mediocre ones. For that, you need independent assessments by a publicly accredited body,” says Yamamoto. “For thirty years now, I’ve watched as the abuses of a few bad actors gave the entire industry a black eye and triggered periodic crackdowns on the admission of students. There has to be some incentive for them to do better.”

Some are hopeful that the establishment of a front door for foreign labor will reduce the need for back doors in the form of shady language schools, but Yamamoto is not optimistic. “As part-time workers who pay all their own expenses, international students are an irresistible source of labor for businesses,” she says. “The kinds of schools that sponsor international students for that purpose aren’t going away anytime soon. So, I doubt that the Specified Skills visa is going to raise the level of Japanese language education in the short run.”

Over the long term, Yamamoto anticipates that the flow of student workers will taper off naturally as economic growth and development push up wages in other Asian countries. “Going forward, Japan needs to put more effort into attracting international students who might eventually qualify for visas as highly skilled professionals. This will mean bolstering both the quality of Japanese language teaching and the number of teachers. In addition, we’ll need to institute a school assessment system and apply international standards so that outstanding programs can make their case to prospective students.”

At present, schools can voluntarily request an independent assessment by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Language Education (established with the backing of the Justice Ministry in 1989), but few take advantage of the service. It is also possible to apply for certification by the International Standards Organization under ISO 29991, Language Learning Services Outside Formal Education. Thus far, however, only four Japanese language schools have been certified, and the industry’s awareness of the standard is very low.

“It’s because the government doesn’t take a stand,” says Yamamoto. “Supposing the immigration authorities were to guarantee visas to students who enrolled at ISO-certified schools? Then I’ll wager schools would get serious about improving the quality of instruction.”

Low Prestige, High Demands

Contributing to the ongoing quality issues afflicting Japanese language schools is the low esteem in which society holds Japanese language teachers. “There’s this idea that any native Japanese speaker can teach Japanese, so we can just leave the job to housewives with some time on their hands,” complains Yamamoto.

In fact, the requirements of the job are getting more demanding all the time. “Before, we were teaching Japanese to foreigners who were expected to go home after a few years. But more and more these days, we’re being called on to work with the local community to help integrate migrants into Japanese society. It’s not enough to teach Japanese in the classroom. Instructors have to be able to design, organize, and carry out field trips and other educational experiences out in the community. They need to be conversant in the latest information and communication technologies. And they need to be able to teach an increasingly diverse group of students. It requires a very high level of skill and commitment. So, we’re facing an unprecedented shortage in Japanese language teachers at a time when acquiring real proficiency takes longer than ever before.”

Japan currently has no national certification system for Japanese language teachers, although such a system is under study. Public certification would doubtless enhance the prestige of the profession, but it will not permit cash-strapped schools to offer their instructors higher pay.

On the eve of a major influx of foreign labor into Japan, the country’s Japanese language schools are in a sorry state after three decades of expedient neglect. Without a serious infusion of public funding to boost teacher compensation and support top-quality schools, the outlook for improvement is bleak.

Note: There are three ways to qualify as a Japanese language instructor at a Justice Ministry–recognized Japanese language school: (1) pass the Japanese Language Teaching Competency Test administered by Japan Educational Exchanges and Services, (2) graduate from a four-year university and complete a 420-hour Japanese language teaching course, and (3) graduate from a four-year university with a major in Japanese language education. The Agency for Cultural Affairs publishes curriculum guidelines for the training of Japanese language instructors, but it was not until April 2018 that the guidelines (revised for the first time in 18 years) clearly stipulated minimum requirements by content area.—Ed.


(Originally published in Japanese on January 29, 2019. Text by Itakura Kimie of Banner photo: International students at a job seminar held by Mynavi Corp. in Tokyo, March 2018. © Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo.)