The number of foreign nationals who call Japan home topped 2.4 million last year, up more than 400,000 from five years ago.

Many, however, are struggling to blend in due to a lack of language proficiency.

Japan needs to create a more effective system to help foreign residents acquire the necessary language skills for daily life and education.

Clearly, the priority should be on helping non-native children.

An education ministry survey in fiscal 2016 found that some 44,000 children and students required special Japanese language lessons at public elementary, junior and senior high schools nationwide.

Even children of international couples involving a Japanese wife or husband can reach school age without acquiring a sufficient command of the language if their parents speak to each other in tongues other than Japanese.

Four years ago, the education ministry reformed the school education system to allow schools to provide special classes in Japanese, math and other subjects for children without sufficient language skills.

But less than 40 percent of local governments, mainly those in areas with large foreign communities, have taken advantage of the change.

Some schools have opted to offer after-school Japanese education for such children.

Schools in many areas depend on Japanese language classes provided by nonprofit organizations.

Ochante Muray Rosa Mercedes, a 36-year-old Japanese Peruvian, faced an uphill battle in trying to communicate in Japanese when she first came here at the age of 15. Now an assistant professor at Nara Gakuen University, she recalls having spent many hours attending Japanese language classes operated by an NPO in the city of Iga, Mie Prefecture.

“It is necessary to institutionalize social support needed to make it possible for (non-native) children to pursue diverse dreams for their future career,” she says.

In November, 22 municipalities with large foreign communities, including Hamamatsu, a city in Shizuoka Prefecture, held a conference in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, to discuss issues common to areas where many foreign nationals reside. They adopted a document titled “Tsu Declaration,” which called on the central government to guarantee opportunities for foreign residents to learn Japanese.

The heads of local governments who attended the meeting proposed a range of ideas to promote the cause, among them: training more specialist Japanese language teachers; creating a public subsidies program to support companies providing Japanese language education; and offering preferential visa status for foreign residents who have mastered Japanese.

Their efforts are probably driven partly by a desire to prevent conflict between foreign and Japanese residents.

But another incentive may be the belief that establishing a system to enable foreign residents to use their skills and abilities to play active roles as members of the local communities is crucial for revitalizing towns and cities with shrinking populations.

The central government should confront the reality and come up with specific policy measures to provide both financial and human resources to support such efforts by municipalities.

Given the nation's shrinking work force, the government has effectively met the shortfall by increasing the number of foreign workers through technical intern training program for foreign nations and other channels.

Whether or not this is the right approach to tackling the challenge, the fact remains that the number of foreign residents has been growing steadily.

This reality clearly requires the government to take steps to create a society where people of diverse nationalities can live in harmony.

In 2016, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers initiated an alliance to promote Japanese education for foreign children.

The group is seeking to enact basic legislation to advance the cause. We hope this initiative will lead to constructive, reality-based debate on the issue at the Diet.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 20