Photo/IllutrationAli Laraib, a first-year high school student at Isesaki Commercial High School, became proficient in Japanese after three years of intense study. She is pictured with her teacher, Masahiro Ishikawa, in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, in January. (Manabu Ueda)

  • Photo/Illustraion

About the only Japanese that Pakistan-born student Ali Laraib knew when she moved to this country was "konnichiwa," or hello.

What a difference three years of intense language study makes.

Laraib, now 18 and a first-year student at Isesaki Commercial High School in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, is at ease speaking Japanese or writing in kanji on a word processor.

Laraib's success in assimilating into Japanese culture is in marked contrast to the experience of many immigrant children who arrive without Japanese language skills and eventually give up, forcing them to drop out of school.

“She is diligent, a hard worker and fits in well,” said Laraib's high school teacher, Michiko Kamio.

For her part, Laraib said, “I was worried that I might not be able to make friends, and I thought that my bookkeeping studies could prove too difficult."

However, she said she finds lessons easy to understand and had no difficulty making friends.

Born in the eastern Pakistan city of Lahore, Laraib's family moved to China in 2014 because the security situation in their home country had descended into chaos. They settled in Isesaki in December 2015.

Laraib’s younger sister and brother had no difficulty entering elementary school and junior high school, respectively. But at age 15, Laraib was too old to enter junior high school.

She felt lost and wondered what to do. That's when she heard about Mirai Juku (Future private school), whose staff informed her that she needed to pass the junior high school equivalency examination to sit for the admission test for high school. In Pakistan, her school attendance was sporadic due to the spiraling violence there.

Laraib began studying Japanese assiduously from January 2016. She had to start from scratch, and struggled to learn kanji.

But after a few months, her language ability had improved dramatically. She also scored well in her other studies.

Although she failed the equivalency examination in autumn 2016, Laraib passed the following year and was accepted into the high school of her choice in 2018.

She now has her sights set on getting a college education or studying at a vocational school after she graduates.

“I want to become a software engineer in the future, so I will have to study even harder,” Laraib said.

Mirai Juku opened in 2011. It has been backed by the municipal board of education since fiscal 2016.

It is run by Isesaki city volunteers at two locations in the city, where members assist 40 or so new arrivals attending elementary or junior high school with their language studies and school homework.

Seventeen of the children were preparing to sit the admission test for high school.

In January, 16-year-old Ceejae Bautista and her sister Joanna, 14, were studying Japanese at the school. They moved to the city from the Philippines in October 2017.

Joanna attends junior high school, but Ceejae was too old to gain admission. As a result, she fell slightly behind her younger sister in her studies.

They were preparing to take the admission test that would be held in February for high school, and both of them expressed a wish to go on to university with the ultimate goal of becoming flight attendants.

Their teacher, Toshiyuki Baba, 66, said he enjoyed having the sisters in his class as “they are so enthusiastic about learning.”

Another teacher, Machiko Takahashi, 67, noted that foreign-born children often must overcome many obstacles in their bid to get an education.

"Despite those difficulties, they are still willing to learn," she said. "It is our duty to support them as best as we can so that their dreams will come true.”

The municipal government of Ota, also in Gunma Prefecture, has organized annual gatherings for the past seven years to explain to parents of foreign-born children attending junior high school what their offspring need to do to enter high school.

Sessions, held in Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, English and Chinese, are hosted by an association that supports foreign-born school-age children in Japan. Its members consist of bilingual teachers or assistant Japanese language teachers.

The municipal board of education co-hosted this fiscal year’s session held last June.

About 40 families participated in the latest session to grasp what the Japanese educational system entails, how to prepare for an entrance examination and the cost.

Some parents took time off from their work to attend. Foreign students and a graduate who is now working made presentations about the paths they had taken. The participants also huddled in private booths to talk about the merits of particular high schools with teachers of schools represented.

“The very parents who we think are in need of information do not attend the sessions,” said Yuriko Clouse, 46, a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian who has worked as a bilingual teacher for the past 14 years or so.

She noted that many Brazilians mistakenly believe that if their children graduate from junior high school, they are automatically entitled to go on to high school without taking an entrance examination, which is how the system works in Brazil.

Clouse added that many parents do not realize they will also need to buy uniforms and textbooks once their children are enrolled.

“It's not that the parents are dim-witted. It's just that they do not understand the system, because it is so foreign to them," she said.

“If parents are indifferent (about school life), their children will stop studying. We try to encourage as many students as possible to pursue their dreams," Clouse added.

On occasion, she contacts parents by phone to encourage them to take a keener interest in how their children are faring at school.

A high percentage of foreign students who enter high school eventually drop out, underscoring the need for more language support.

According to the education ministry, 1,034 foreign-born children attending public elementary, junior and senior high schools in Gunma Prefecture needed assistance as of May 2016 to master Japanese to overcome problems they encounter on a daily basis, as well as academic matters.

As a majority of them live in Isesaki, Ota or Oizumi, the boards of education of those municipalities set up additional language schools or assigned more Japanese language teachers. The extent of such activities varies depending on the municipal government, and what measures are taken is left to the discretion of each entity.

The Gunma prefectural board of education drew up a set of special measures for foreign students to make it easier for them to enter any public high school in the prefecture as long as their stay in Japan is limited to three years.

The students are exempted from examinations in social studies and science, and instead are required to write an essay and be interviewed in either Japanese or English, depending on the language chosen by the high school in question. This special measure only applies to the second round of the entrance examination, however.

It is left to so-called flex schools, which operate on a part-time basis with day and night classes, to decide whether to accept foreign students under the special measure.

The prefectural board of education does not announce the number of foreign applicants or whether they passed.

“The quota has a degree of flexibity, based on how many students are applying," said an official.

Of the 252 foreign students attending public junior high schools in the prefecture, 92 percent went on to high school in fiscal 2016.

Prefecture-wide, 415 foreign students attended 68 public high schools in fiscal 2017.