Photo/IllutrationA Japanese language class in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

"Nihongo wakarimasu ka?" (Do you understand Japanese?)

If you are a foreign national working or studying in Japan, your language learning opportunities are about to get a considerable boost.

The Upper House committee on education and science unanimously approved a bill on June 20 aimed at supporting learning Japanese.

The "Japanese language education promotion bill," which already passed the Lower House and is expected to be approved at the Upper House's plenary session, clarifies the responsibilities of government and business entities employing foreign nationals.

It also requires that broad opportunities are secured for those seeking Japanese language education.

The number of foreigners who studied Japanese in this country rose from about 140,000 in fiscal 2012 to 240,000 in fiscal 2017 following an increase in foreign students and technical intern trainees.

The figure is expected to continue to increase, as the new "specified skills" visa status started this year.

The environment for Japanese language education varies depending on the area and other factors, and the support system is considered insufficient.

Given such circumstances, a suprapartisan group of lawmakers worked out the bill and submitted it to the Diet.

The bill, which obliges central and local governments to implement measures to promote Japanese language education, targets foreigners, including workers, students and children.

The bill also obliges business operators to offer Japanese learning opportunities to foreign employees and their family members and support such education.

The central government will be required to cultivate high-quality Japanese language teachers and develop appropriate means for assessing language skills.

EXPERTS CAST DOUBTS

For foreigners working in Japan, Japanese language education has been left mainly up to their employers. As a result, many of them have only been able to master a minimum command of the language necessary for their work.

The problem was highlighted following the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008. Many Japanese-Brazilians working in factories were fired, and as many did not have adequate Japanese language abilities to secure other employment, they were forced to return to their home country.

The bill stipulates that the central government will support efforts by business operators to offer Japanese language education to foreign employees.

One of the measures is the development of Web-based teaching materials that make studying possible for non-Japanese who are unable to take language classes in person.

The bill also states that the central government will take fiscal measures to promote Japanese language education. However, it does not specify concrete measures the government will urge business operators to implement and how they would be supported.

Another challenge will be how much of the financial burden should be shouldered by central and local governments.

Some experts cast doubt on giving business operators a primary role in implementing such education training.

According to lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, who has detailed knowledge on labor issues related to foreigners, the German government provides opportunities for individuals to take as many as about 600 German classes.

He insists that it is also necessary in Japan to establish a system in which foreigners can receive Japanese language education for free or at low fees under the government's responsibility.

“Language education is an important pillar among measures for multicultural coexistence," said Keizo Yamawaki, professor of multicultural coexistence at Meiji University. "If (foreigners) cannot speak the language, it may create gaps."

(This article was written by Daisuke Yajima and Mari Fujisaki.)