Photo/IllutrationA nonprofit organization in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, creates space for children of foreign nationality to study outside of the school classroom. (Tomoko Yamashita)

Left without necessary support as they are trapped in a gap in the nation’s education system, a large number of children of foreign nationality in Japan are apparently growing up with a sense of alienation from society.

This is a serious and burning problem that must not be left unaddressed.

As many as 20,000 foreign children of elementary and junior high school age may not be receiving a school education at all in Japan.

This is one of the dire findings of a survey the education ministry has conducted through education boards across the nation.

There are some 120,000 foreign children of elementary and junior high school age, according to basic registers of residents. That means one in every six foreign children at these ages is left out of the Japanese school system.

But the picture of their real conditions is blurry as only about 1,000 have been confirmed not to be attending school. The fate of the remaining some 19,000 is unknown because education boards have no specific information about them or have failed to contact their parents.

The lack of accurate information about these children available to the education authority only underscores the seriousness of the problem.

Moreover, many municipal governments are not working with foreign families to bring these children into the education system.

Most local government notifications sent to families of foreign residents to inform them that their children are to start attending elementary school are written only in Japanese. Some local governments don’t even bother to send such documents to foreign families.

One factor behind the lukewarm attitude of most local governments toward the issue of education of foreign children is the absence of legislation that requires foreign children to attend school.

But the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966, recognizes “the right of everyone to an education” and says, “Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all.”

Children have the right to receive a school education wherever they live.

The government and the Diet should act swiftly and start reviewing the system.

Education boards have a duty to make more active efforts to ensure that foreign children attend school, such as notifying in effective ways children and their families of their eligibility to enroll. They should seek, if necessary, help from local government departments responsible for international exchanges or relevant citizen groups.

It may not be fair, however, to put the blame for this situation entirely on education boards.

Even if they can identify foreign children who are not attending school, they do not have sufficient resources to deal with the problem. They are far short of teachers and interpreters capable of handling the situation while lacking the funds needed to support such children with their school education.

Many foreign children just stop attending school as they cannot keep up with classes because of a lack of necessary language skills.

Instead of simply pressing municipal governments to step up their efforts to tackle this challenge, the central government should provide enough financial support for them to develop and employ people with the necessary capabilities.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has decided to allow more foreign workers to work in Japan in a major policy shift as part of its policy responses to the aging of the nation’s population amid low birth rates.

There is no doubt that the number of foreign children living in Japan will grow steadily in the coming years. They are members of society who will play important roles for the future of the nation.

Education is essential for children to acquire basic life and work skills.

Another education ministry survey has found that the ratio of dropouts among high school students whose native language is not Japanese is more than seven times higher than the average. Such students are also more likely to end up with non-regular jobs or neither find a job or go on to the next stage of education than Japanese students.

An increase in the number of young people without stable employment would have far-reaching effects on society, including negative impacts on the social security system.

Guaranteeing school education for children of foreign nationality would benefit not just the children themselves but also society as a whole.

This problem will test the nation’s ability to accept foreigners as legitimate and important members of society and build harmonious, mutually beneficial relations between Japanese citizens and foreign residents.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 4