Educated abroad, Japanese students find return difficult

Yuko Terasaki, a seventh-grader who grew up in Queens, N.Y., returned home to Japan three months ago when her father was transferred by his company. She faced a major challenge: Although she was born in Japan, and is a Japanese citizen, English is her first language, and she speaks only conversational Japanese.

Yuko is one of a number of Japanese children who have spent the majority of their childhood abroad. Although many Japanese businessmen will place their children with relatives in Japan, or go abroad alone to keep their children in the Japanese school system, many take their families with them and educate their children in local or international schools.

Such children generally benefit greatly from the international exposure, and many become fluent in another language; but they often do so at the expense of their understanding of Japan and the Japanese language. When they return, they may be confronted with schools that have no facilities and little desire to tutor them until their language ability improves.

These students present a growing challenge to Japan's Ministry of Education, which oversees the country's national education program. As all children must meet specified requirements to enter both high school and college, students returning from abroad are often handicapped because of different curricula and, most important, limited language ability.

Until recently, only a low number of Japanese families lived abroad, and those who were transferred to foreign countries had often finished raising their families. With the increase in Japanese international trade in the past 10 years, however, young businessmen with families are increasingly transferred abroad, and the number of Japanese children studying in foreign schools has almost tripled, to an estimated 24,000.

The most urgent problem these children confront upon returning to Japan is entrance into high school or college. As 80 percent of foreign-educated Japanese children live abroad during elementary school years, they miss the standard language and curriculum preparation that are crucial to pass the qualification examinations.

In an effort to aid these students, many overseas communities have set up part-time, "Saturday" Japanese schools. However, while these schools, which 75 percent of Japanese students abroad attend, are oriented toward exam preparation , the classes they offer are often inadequate.

The Ministry of Education has also created special schools in Japan that will accept these students without standard entrance exams. The first was set up in 1965. Before this, foreign-educated children simply were not accepted by schools because of language problems, or else they were placed in low grades. At present, however, four educational colleges run special schools for returnees , and there are about 22 public facilities, which the ministry subsidizes.

Both the Japanese government, and a number of private educators, are actively trying to develop programs for these students. Yet, as Tetsuya Kobayashi, a specialist on the problem from Kyoto University's Department of Education, points out, "The emphasis is on 'adjustment education [tekio kyoiku],' and on catching the children up as quickly as possible. But in doing this, it is easy to neglect the social adjustment of a child. We often strive too hard for complete assimilation to the existing system."

Students who return face this pressure, not only in academic studies, but in the adjustment to their peers, among whom they stand out noticeably.

"When I first came back, I tried not to talk," Yuko Terasaki recalls. "I spoke with an American accent, and that seemed funny to people. It's better now , but it's still hard to get along."

Juneko Suzuki, a high school sophomore who was born in the United States, also commented about the accent problem. Equally difficult, she remarked, was the education about Japanese customs and preferences.

"The girls I met liked different things than my friends in the US. And especially at first, I acted more American than Japanese, My teachers still tell me I stand out too much."

Dr. Kobayashi emphasizes the need for programs that educate returning students how to transfer skills learned abroad to their new Japanese situation, and do not encourage them to drop the foreign culture quickly and completely. However, as Mary Ellen Hoke, a teacher of returning students, points out, "This is difficult, as not only schools but parents encourage assimilation rather than the unique qualities of their children. Parents prefer to have their children fit in like other kids, rather than stand out in a society which stresses similarity."

Students who move frequently, or who return to Japan and cannot adapt immediately, often end up feeling trapped between two cultures. Mariko Ikegami, a high school senior who has moved four times between the United States and Japan, was discouraged against using her English each time she returned to Japan; and this, combined with frequent moves, has prevented her from speaking either language fluently. Faced with decisions about college application, she is confused about what direction to take, as she feels at home in neither country.

It is toward students like Mariko that Dr. Kobayashi's efforts are particularly directed. Not only may students with experience abroad be an asset to Japan's international activities, but they deserve an education that can help them adjust gradually to a new social and educational system.

As Dr. Kobayashi remarked, "It is not possible to adjust students in a short period. It may seem that way, as most students with even a little background have an adequate command of the language after six months or so. But if we try to escalate their adjustment, 99 percent of the time we fail. The students can adjust successfully in their own way -- but we have to give them the freedom and time to do so."

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