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date: 21 September 2018

Multicultural Education in Japan

Summary and Keywords

As Japanese society diversifies with an influx of foreigners, multicultural education has a critical role to play in achieving educational equity and affirming cultural diversity of students from various cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Since the 1980s, Japanese scholars and educators have introduced, interpreted, and reappropriated multicultural education from the West, and have developed the field in conjunction with different education genres (e.g., human rights education, Dowa education, Zainichi Korean education, and education for international understanding). Scholars often use the term multicultural coexistence education (tabunka kyosei kyoiku) to discuss the role of education to realize a society of multicultural coexistence. Contemporary debates and controversies regarding multicultural education focus on the “3F” (namely, food, festival, and fashion) approach, the absence of social justice perspectives, its narrow scope, and the invisibility of majority Japanese.

Although the concept of multicultural education was imported from the West relatively recently, when the number of newcomer students increased in public schools during the early 1990s, Japan has its own versions of multicultural education, such as Dowa education and Zainichi Korean education. These forms of multicultural education policies and practices, which were primarily developed in the Kansai area, take a somewhat progressive approach toward achieving educational equity and reducing discrimination against minorities. Today, multicultural education is often associated with education for newcomer students.

Although the national government has provided remedial education (e.g., Japanese language and adaptation classes) under the notion of equal treatment, numerous nonformal education sites have played critical roles in achieving equity and empowering newcomer students. Multicultural education policies and practices remain peripheral in Japan at the national government level; nevertheless, grass-roots movements have emerged where local governments, nonprofit organizations (NPOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), concerned teachers, researchers, minority youth and parents, and community organizers are attempting to transform assimilative education policies and practices into more equitable and inclusive ones. With the rise of multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyosei) discourse, Japanese society is taking incremental steps toward achieving the goals of multicultural education.

Keywords: Multicultural education, multicultural coexistence, equity, diversity, minorities, social justice, human rights, grass-roots movement


Japan has historically been home to various minorities, such as the Burakumin (a feudal outcast group during the Edo period), Zainichi Koreans and Chinese returnees (who have roots in Japanese colonization), and Ainu and Okinawans (indigenous populations). Nevertheless, Japan’s diversity is often overlooked. Many individuals have internalized a belief in a homogeneous and essentialized Japan (Befu, 2001), which does not account for the nation’s hybridity and diversity in languages, customs, traditions, and religions. Recently, a group of primarily Western researchers criticized the discourse of Japaneseness (Nihonjinron) and advocated an alternative discourse of a multicultural Japan, wherein the heterogeneity, hybridity, and multicultural nature of Japanese society is acknowledged (Befu, 2001; Lie, 2001; Weiner, 2009; Graburn & Tierney, 2008; Willis & Murphy-Shigematsu, 2008).

Since the 1980s, there has been an influx of foreigners who were called “newcomers,” whereas previous ethnic minorities were labeled “oldcomers.” Zainichi Koreans, ethnic Koreans who were brought to the country as a result of Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, compose the majority of oldcomers. Although the Japanese government does not officially permit manual laborers to enter the country, many newcomer foreigners have come to Japan to compensate for a shortage of unskilled workers in a growing economy. In addition, revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in 1990 enabled Nikkeijin (persons of Japanese descent) up to the third generation to reside in Japan legally as manual laborers, thereby leading to a rise in the number of South American (e.g., Brazilian and Peruvian) children and workers in the country. Likewise, the number of Japanese marriages to foreigners has brought attention to hafu (biracial individuals who are in part ethnically Japanese), which has consequently challenged the construct of Japaneseness.

In 2016, the number of registered foreign nationals (excluding those with Japanese citizenship) reached 2.38 million—approximately 1.8% of Japan’s total population. According to the Ministry of Justice (2017), the top five foreign nationalities in 2016 were Chinese (29.2%), Korean (19%), Filipino (10.2%), Vietnamese (8.4%), and Brazilian (7.6%). Many of them, specifically Nikkeijin, are clustered in what Ryoko Tsuneyoshi (2004, p. 57) calls “diversity points,” which are “patches of visibly diverse districts scattered amidst a vast sea of seeming homogeneity.” In the absence of national integration policies, local governments and nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in districts comprising significant immigrant populations have promoted “multicultural coexistence” (tabunka kyosei), a Japanese iteration of multiculturalism that aims for harmonious living between Japanese and foreigners.

Education has played an important role in promoting social justice and coexistence in Japanese society. Although Japanese scholars and educators have adopted Western approaches to multicultural education fairly recently, similar forms such as Dowa education and Zainichi Korean education have a rich history. Multicultural education (tabunka kyoiku) has not been a central focus of the government; as such, grass-roots movements have emerged in an attempt to achieve equity and affirm cultural diversity among minority students.

This article explores the development of Japanese multicultural education theories, policies, and practices. It first introduces the concept of multicultural coexistence, specifically focusing on the development of its policies, practices, and discourses. Next, the article examines how scholars developed a Japanese version of multicultural education by importing and reappropriating Western theories, and also investigates recent controversies and debates in the field. The article then explores the history of a Japanese version of multicultural education policies and practices in order to contextualize recent developments in Japanese multicultural education. Finally, contemporary education policies and practices for newcomers are examined, and the future prospects for Japanese multicultural education are discussed. Another goal of this article is to disseminate findings on multicultural education in Japan written mostly in the Japanese language and contribute to the discussion in this field internationally.

Development of Multicultural Coexistence Policies, Practices, and Discourses

The concept of multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyosei) is key to understanding multicultural policies and practices in Japan. Coexistence (kyosei) is an indigenous concept that emphasizes equity and the acceptance of differences (Kim, 2007; Tai, 2005). Tai (2005) argues that coexistence facilitates the critical examination of power dynamics and relationships, thereby leading to the problematization of the majority/oppressor’s role. She further contends that descent-based citizenship in Japan encourages the concept of coexistence. Unlike many Western countries, where national unity is the basis for a common civic culture, in Japan, a marked distinction exists between Japanese and foreigners, thus necessitating coexistence between both groups (Tai, 2007). Scholars across disciplines have focused on coexistence given its potential to supersede Western-centric theories and binary thinking.

The term coexistence emerged around the 1970s, when minorities such as Zainichi Koreans and Ainu adopted the concept in their fight against colonization, discrimination, and oppression (Shiobara, 2012; Tai, 2005). Zainichi Koreans and their supporters initially used the term fight together (kyoutou) in a joint effort with some Japanese to combat ethnic discrimination. Soon afterward, the term coexist (tomoni ikiru) was adopted, which emphasized the need for Zainichi Koreans and Japanese to respect their differences and live harmoniously (Kim, 2007). Whereas coexist originally had connotations of social justice by problematizing structural inequality, the recent combination of multicultural and coexistence (specifically in the public sphere) romanticizes the notion of harmonious relationships and respect for cultural differences. Some scholars argue that multicultural coexistence fails to challenge majority-minority relationships, and therefore dismisses colonial attitudes toward minorities in Japan (Hatano, 2006; Shiobara, 2012).

Since the 1990s, the notion of multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyosei) has gained traction in public discourse. With a lack of national government awareness of and concern for immigrants, the grass-roots entities such as local governments and NPOs/NGOs have actively developed policies and practices to support the lives of immigrants with respect to language, education, health, and housing, and have encouraged interaction between foreigners and Japanese in order to promote multicultural coexistence. For example, after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of January 1995, there was a strong grass-roots movement in Kobe to support foreign residents in the affected areas, which in turn encouraged other local areas to take part in multicultural coexistence practices. In 2001, 13 cities that have a large population of newcomers (e.g., cities in Gunma prefecture, Shizuoka prefecture, and Aichi prefecture), specifically Nikkeijin, developed a “Council of Cities with a Large Foreigner Population” (gaikokujin shujyu toshi kaigi). The council, which had 25 cities as members in 2016, holds meetings every year to exchange issues and best practices, provide suggestions to the national government, and promote multicultural coexistence from below.

In 2006, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications released an official document proclaiming that “it is increasingly important to promote the development of multicultural coexisting communities where people of different nationalities and ethnicities live together as members of local communities with respect for cultural differences and [with] efforts to establish fair relationships” (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2006, p. 1). As of 2017, more than 10 years since the document was published, many instances of multicultural coexistence policies and practices, including education support for newcomers, have been reported by various local governments across Japan (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2017).

Importation and Development of Japanese Multicultural Education

Unlike Western countries such as the United States, wherein there is some consensus regarding the goals, approaches, and concepts of multicultural education (Banks, 2009), in Japan, its interpretation and scope vary. Japanese scholars have conducted many studies regarding multicultural education; nevertheless, the field remains undertheorized. Japanese multicultural education has developed in conjunction with diverse education genres, such as human rights education, Dowa education, Zainichi Korean education, education for returnees (kikokushijo), education for international understanding, global education, citizenship education, education for sustainable development (ESD), and Japanese-language education. Some scholars adopt a social justice–oriented view, wherein focus is placed on reforming school cultures, whereas others emphasize creating school environments in which the ethnic and linguistic differences of minority students are acknowledged. When compared to many Western countries, where multicultural education is often integrated into policies, programs, and practices, in Japan, the literal term of multicultural education has not extended beyond the realm of research. For instance, there is no subject called “multicultural education” in the curriculum guidelines of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). Thus, multicultural education is rarely incorporated into teacher training programs or school curricula, although some instructors introduced related content during the Integrated Studies period as a component of education for international understanding, moral education, and social studies.

Multicultural education was imported to Japan in the mid-1980s (Hirasawa, 2009; Tai, 2007). As the number of newcomer students in public schools requiring Japanese language instruction rapidly increased during the early 1990s, education scholars, policymakers, and practitioners were pressured to create a school system capable of accommodating students from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It is in this context that education scholars expressed interest in studying notions of multicultural education from Western nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Initially, scholars (specifically those from the Intercultural Education Society of Japan, a key organization that focuses on culture and education) introduced multicultural education theories, policies, and practices from the West as a guide for Japanese education. Other organizations conducted research regarding multicultural education as well, such as the Japan Society of Educational Sociology, the Japan Society for the Study of Adult and Community Education, the Japan Association for International Education, and the Japan Comparative Education Society.

Japanese scholars actively translated multicultural education theories, approaches, and models developed by leading Western researchers (e.g., James Banks, Geneva Gay, Sonia Nieto, Christine Sleeter, Carl Grant, and Gloria Ladson-Billings) into their native language. For example, Comparative Studies of Multicultural Education: Cultural Assimilation and Diversification in Education was an impetus for research regarding multicultural education in Japan (Kobayashi & Ebuchi, 1985). At the annual conference for the Intercultural Education Society of Japan in 1992, a special session was held, called “Current Trends and Issues in Multicultural Education: Situations in Each Country and Suggestions.” The following year, the association published related articles in its official journal Intercultural Education in an issue entitled “Intercultural Education and Multicultural Education.” Nonetheless, some scholars have criticized the tendency of researchers to merely translate, import, or adopt Western perspectives on multicultural education without considering factors that are unique to Japan.

For the past few decades, leading scholars and researchers have interpreted, reappropriated, and introduced various ideas, theories, and models of multicultural education. Takeo Morimo and Kyoko Nakayama (2008), for instance, developed a multicultural education curriculum based on James Banks’s theories. Likewise, inspired by the whiteness studies conducted by researchers such as Peggy McIntosh, Tomoaki Matsuo has written prolifically on the deconstruction of Japaneseness and proposed a multicultural education model influenced by American theorists (Matsuo, 2013). Misako Nukaga (2003) developed a multicultural coexistence model based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at a Japanese elementary school and focused on some aspects of school culture by referring to American multicultural education theories.

There is also a group of scholars who have examined multicultural practices in Japanese education from a historical perspective (Hirasawa, 2009; Nakajima, 1996, 1998). Tomoko Nakajima (1998) emphasized that, given their historical development and similarity to Western multicultural education, Dowa education and Zainichi Korean education can be considered a Japanese iteration of multicultural education. Further, she maintains that Japanese multicultural education is not a model imported from abroad, but rather something that developed from within. Following Nakajima’s argument, Yasumasa Hirasawa (2009, p. 161) described education for returnees, Dowa education, and Zainichi Korean education as “‘de facto’ approaches to multicultural education.”

It is important to note that as multicultural coexistence discourse proliferated in Japan, scholars began to discuss the role of education in realizing a society of multicultural coexistence. Rather than adopting the term multicultural education, which evolved from Western contexts, some scholars prefer to use the term multicultural coexistence education (tabunka kyosei kyoiku), or education for multicultural coexistence (tabunka kyosei no tameno kyoiku) (Mabuchi, 2011). Today, many scholars use the terms multicultural coexistence education and multicultural education interchangeably, perhaps because they are resistant to blindly adopting ideas or addressing matters unique to Western settings, whose immigration histories and ethnic/racial compositions differ. Indeed, Intercultural Education: Bulletin of the Intercultural Education Society of Japan published three separate issues in 2009, 2010, and 2016 with the words multicultural coexistence in the title, thereby highlighting the aforementioned trend.

Recent Controversies and Debates

Controversy and debate surrounds multicultural education in Japan. First, scholars argue that multicultural education practices in Japan, often in the form of education for international understanding, are based on “cosmetic multiculturalism” (Morris-Suzuki, 2002, p. 171), and therefore do not explore cultures critically. As many Western scholars of multicultural education have noted, Japanese schools likewise tend not to transcend the basic notion of “‘multiple cultures’ existing together in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance” (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 2006, p. 25). Researchers have questioned the “3F” (food, festival, and fashion) approach in schools, wherein cuisine, music, and clothing of ethnic minority students are introduced and ethnic festivals are organized to present an essential version of a given culture (Hatano, 2006; Mabuchi, 2011; Tai, 2007). Nevertheless, local communities and schools are increasingly organizing 3F-influenced cultural events. Practices that promote the acceptance and affirmation of cultures may be empowering for some underrepresented minorities; however, the oversimplification of cultural views and making invisible of majority student cultures could potentially promote discrimination (Tai, 2005). To reduce the gap between research and practice, scholars are attempting to integrate more critical and constructive approaches to culture into multicultural education (Matsuo, 2013; Morimo & Nakayama, 2008).

Second, multicultural education policies and practices generally lack a social justice component (namely, the critical analysis of structural inequality). Terms such as “ideology of togetherness” (Tsuneyoshi, 2001, p. 85) capture the notion that Japanese schools value cooperation, community, and association (Cummings, 1980; Rohlen & LeTendre, 1996). However, this emphasis on equality over equity frequently spawns education policies and practices that do not consider how students’ lives are affected by their social, cultural, economic, and structural backgrounds. The visibility of social issues such as child poverty has increased in recent years, but the adoption of sociological categories (e.g., minority, majority, power, oppression, and marginalization) for the purpose of solving educational problems and actualizing educational equity is often deemed taboo (Abe, 2008; Kariya, 1995).

Interestingly, the consideration of minority perspectives began relatively recently in Japan, even within the realm of research. When sociology of education as a field was largely developed in Japan by importing Western theories, the perspectives of minority groups were overlooked (Shimizu et al., 2014). For instance, scholars indicate that instructors do not apply special treatment to newcomer students and often personalize learners’ problems without acknowledging structural barriers and systems of oppression (Shimizu & Shimizu, 2001). Teachers often fear that these practices will violate the privacy of minority students, stigmatize them, or both, thereby potentially leading to discrimination, bullying, or other types of marginalization. With respect to mechanisms of silence among Burakumin, for example, Christopher Bondy (2015, p. 5) noted that silence “can serve to perpetuate the marginalization of certain groups and social problems by replicating the suppression of thoughts and ideas.” Indeed, remaining silent regarding social justice issues can hinder school reforms intended to reduce discrimination and increase equality for students from diverse backgrounds.

Third, referring to whiteness studies, some scholars have problematized the fact that Japanese are generally unexposed to multicultural education. In 2005, the Intercultural Education Society of Japan published a special issue entitled What Does “Japaneseness” Mean for Intercultural Education? This issue was based on discussions concerning the construction of Japaneseness from the association’s annual conference in 2004. Although the goal of multicultural education is to alter school cultures and structures in order to attain educational equity, its focus is often solely on minority students. As a majority group, Japanese learners exert control over power dynamics, and their complicity in maintaining the status quo is rarely questioned. Scholars argue that the Japanese are rarely required to acknowledge their own cultures; rather, they merely exotify and consume foreign cultures, often in an essentialistic way, in education for international understanding classes (Okubo, 2008). Japanese schools frequently host foreign lectures and permit them to present their native languages and cultures to students. Moreover, schools often associate education for international understanding with English-language instruction. In attempting to advocate a more critical approach to multicultural education, Tomoaki Matsuo (2013) highlighted various privileges held by majority Japanese in schools and proposed a model of multicultural education with a more universal design. He further argued that by unpacking majority student privilege, schools could transform their assimilative cultures into more inclusive and holistic ones.

Finally, some scholars have problematized the narrow scope of multicultural education, which generally prioritizes education for newcomer students; further, they argue that this tendency dismisses the rich history of education for groups such as Zainichi Koreans, Burakumin, Ainu, Okinawans, and returnees. Tomoko Nakajima (2008) criticized recent research trends in which the continuation of education for newcomer and oldcomer students is unacknowledged; she also objected to the tendency of many scholars to separate both fields. Although the goal of multicultural education is to provide equal learning opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds, scholars tend to focus on education for a specific group; in addition, there is limited interaction between different genres of minority education. Policymakers and practitioners likewise adopt narrow approaches, such as human rights for Dowa and Zainichi Korean education and international understanding for newcomer students. As Nakajima argued, scholars in related fields should adopt more inclusive conceptualizations of multicultural education, and build contemporary theories, policies, and practices by examining those from the past.

The following section will provide a historical overview of a Japanese version of multicultural education policies and practices, with a focus on Dowa education and education for Zainichi Koreans. By examining the history of multicultural education in Japan, it should be possible to contextualize, broaden, and reimagine contemporary understandings of Japanese multicultural education.

History of a Japanese Version of Multicultural Education Policies and Practices

The introduction of multicultural education based on Western models occurred somewhat recently in Japan. However, a Japanese iteration of multicultural education geared toward achieving educational equity and alleviating discrimination against minority students has existed for multiple decades, namely in the form of Dowa and Zainichi Korean education. Dowa education and Zainichi Korean education are progressive in problematizing issues of educational equity, particularly in the Kansai area, the southern part of Honshu, including Osaka and Kyoto, which comprises a large number of Zainichi Koreans and Burakumin. Kaori H. Okano (2006, p. 486) refers to these local government policies as “multicultural education policies” because of their focus on human rights and social justice.

Dowa Education

Dowa education targeted the descendants of feudal outcast communities (i.e., Burakumin) during the Edo period and has been one of Japan’s most progressive forms of multicultural education. George A. De Vos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma (1966) referred to the Burakumin as Japan’s “invisible race.” Despite being racially and ethnically Japanese, the Burakumin are one of the country’s largest minority groups, who have faced significant discrimination and marginalization. Dowa education can be described as a systematic effort to “eradicate prejudice against the Buraku and to improve Buraku academic achievement and literacy levels” (Hirasawa & Nabeshima, 1995, p. 47). Since the 1950s, policymakers, community organizers, educators, and the government have attempted to actualize educational equity for Buraku learners, particularly given the wide gap in educational attainment between Buraku and non-Buraku students. Owing to poverty and discrimination, long-term absence, nonattendance, juvenile delinquency, and low academic achievement, the Special Measures Law for Dowa Projects (Dowa Taisaku Jigyo Tokubetsu Sochi Ho) was implemented in 1969, which focused on promoting educational attainment and human rights education among Buraku students (Bondy, 2015; Nabeshima, 2010). Based on this law, the Ministry of Education and local governments allocated additional teachers to Dowa education, offered financial support to designated schools, awarded scholarships, developed curricula pertaining to Buraku issues, supported community activities for youth, and provided career education (Hirasawa & Nabeshima, 1995; Nabeshima, 2010). The Kansai area was particularly proactive in Dowa initiatives.

By the late 1970s, living conditions and the educational environment in Buraku communities improved drastically. Nevertheless, students continued to underperform with respect to academic achievement and high school/college admission, particularly compared to their non-Buraku counterparts. Beginning in the 1980s, the board of education in the Kansai area, in conjunction with scholars primarily specializing in the sociology of education, conducted empirical studies to determine which factors contributed to low academic achievement among Buraku students (Nabeshima, 2010; Shimizu et al., 2014). Since the 2000s, scholars have conducted similar investigations in Kansai schools based on British and American school effectiveness research in an attempt to narrow the gap in educational achievement between Buraku and non-Buraku students, as well as to improve educational equity (Nabeshima, 2003; Shimizu, 2011). These scholars identified seven factors that raised levels of academic achievement among minority students: prevention of students’ misbehavior, empowerment through group activities, teamwork among teachers, a positive school culture, community and school partnerships, system development to improve students’ academic achievement, and strong school leadership (Nabeshima, 2010).

Given the large minority populations such as Burakumin and Zainichi Koreans, as well as the long history of education for these minorities in Osaka, Kokichi Shimizu (2008) argues that schooling in Osaka prefecture is more progressive and inclusive than in other locations. Moreover, he maintains that Osaka schools are minority friendly (jyakusha ni yasashi) and have strong connections to local communities. Multicultural education theorists likewise assert that Kansai schools have adapted to increase educational equity and support learning among minority students. In some areas, Buraku organizations, instructors, and local governments developed elementary and middle school curricula intended to teach students about Buraku rights (and human rights in general) with the goal of curtailing discrimination (Hirasawa & Nabeshima, 1995). Such practices are uncommon in other parts of Japan; nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that pockets exist where progressive, multicultural education has been historically promoted, and that these areas are continuously evolving to include students from diverse backgrounds.

The Dowa measure ended in 2002, and many of its education policies and practices have since been abolished. Beginning in 1995 with the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, Dowa education shifted to encompass human rights education in general, which entails addressing education issues faced by various minority groups. Unfortunately, expanding the scope of targeted issues has reduced awareness of Buraku-specific concerns. Some scholars argue that further research is required to identify both new and ongoing issues related to Buraku students (Shimizu et al., 2014).

Zainichi Korean Education

Another form of Japanese multicultural schooling is Zainichi Korean education. Zainichi Koreans were forced to come to Japan because of its colonization of Korea between 1910 and 1945, and until recently, they comprised Japan’s largest group of ethnic minorities. Under discriminatory and assimilative policies, Zainichi Koreans faced profound discrimination and marginalization due to an absence of social welfare, the oppression of ethnic schools, and limited employment opportunities. Similar to Burakumin, Zainichi Koreans are often unnoticed in Japan since their physical characteristics are similar to ethnic Japanese; in addition, they often have Japanese names, and speak Japanese as their native tongue. Zainichi Koreans have fought discrimination for many generations and engaged in various forms of activism in order to attain their rights and affirm their ethnic identity (Motani, 2002; Tai, 2007). It is in this context that Zainichi Korean education developed and came to play an important role in both sustaining and advancing the community.

According to Tomoko Nakajima (1996, pp. 129–130), Zainichi Korean education encompasses education in Korean ethnic schools, as well as ethnic classes in Japanese schools that aim to “raise ethnic awareness of Zainichi Korean children, and remove ethnic prejudice and deepen the understanding of different ethnic groups and cultures among Japanese students.” Unlike in many Western nations, where there is opposition to the creation of separate ethnic schools, such institutions (which were developed and run by Korean organizations) have “a significant history of being sites of linguistic and cultural resistance” (Tokunaga & Douthirt-Cohen, 2012, p. 322). Although these schools were subject to government oppression, they played a critical role in ensuring that the language, identity, and culture of Zainichi Koreans were preserved. Even so, most Korean students attend Japanese schools owing to ethnic discrimination and limited social and economic support from the Japanese government. The education practices of ethnic classes in Japanese public elementary and middle schools that aim to teach Korean language, culture, and history are often narrowly referred to as Zainichi Korean education.

Similar to how the American civil rights movement of the 1960s spawned multicultural education in the United States, the Burakumin liberation movement greatly affected the development of Zainichi Korean education (Nakajima, 1996). In the Kansai area during the late 1960s and 1970s (when Dowa education policies were implemented), Zainichi Korean students struggling to overcome discrimination and low academic achievement asserted that it was unfair for them to be excluded from educational policies and practices that targeted Buraku students (Nakajima, 1996). The purpose of Japan’s education system is to educate Japanese nationals; as such, education was not compulsory for non-Japanese. Owing to assimilationist policies toward foreigners, education for Zainichi Koreans was not prioritized and schools treated them as Japanese students. However, a group of concerned Japanese educators who acknowledged the educational needs of Zainichi Korean students and were familiar with Dowa education developed an educational movement and programs for elementary and middle school students (e.g., ethnic classes, club activities). To increase public awareness and affirm the community’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identities, teachers encouraged students to use honmyo (meaning “true names” in Korean) rather than tsumei (meaning “passing names” in Japanese). Career support for Zainichi Korean students also became a key focus, as their high school entrance and employment rates were lower than their Japanese counterparts.

In 1971, the aforementioned teachers in Osaka formed an activist organization to address education issues facing Zainichi Korean public school students. By networking with practitioners from other areas, in 1983, these instructors launched the National Association for Research on Education for Zainichi Koreans in Japan (Zenkoku Zainichi Chosenjin Kyoiku Kenkyukyogikai) (Nakajima, 1996; Okano, 2011; Tai, 2007). First- and second-generation Zainichi Korean youth also became involved in the movement and were proactive in developing and teaching ethnic classes, as well as overseeing club activities (Nakajima, 1996; Tai, 2007). These grass-roots movements affected local governments by devising educational guidelines and policies for foreign students. For example, in 1992, Osaka officially recognized ethnic classes and began to provide funding for such programs.

Western multicultural scholars have highlighted the importance of schoolwide reforms and the inclusion of majority students in multicultural programs. Against this backdrop, Zainichi Korean education gradually expanded to include Japanese students. Teachers soon realized that it was insufficient to provide ethnic education solely to Zainichi Koreans, as ongoing discrimination and prejudice prevented them from being proud of their ethnic identity. To raise awareness of Zainichi Korean issues, local governments, schools, and teachers in the Kansai area incorporated related content into their regular classes and developed supplementary textbooks (Nakajima, 1996).

Zainichi Korean education has recently broadened its scope, adapting its policies and practices to meet the diverse needs of newcomer students. The community’s population is dwindling owing to increased naturalization and intermarriage with Japanese; in contrast, the newcomer population is increasing in districts where Zainichi Koreans reside. The next section focuses specifically on multicultural education for newcomer students.

Contemporary Multicultural Education Policies and Practices: The Case of Newcomers

Newcomer students constitute the group most commonly associated with discussions concerning multicultural education in Japan. An influx of newcomer students from various cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds to public schools prompted Japanese scholars to begin importing Western ideas and concepts related to multicultural education. These students became particularly visible during the 1990s, after revisions were made to the country’s immigration laws, which prompted many Nikkeijin, such as Japanese Brazilians and Peruvians, to “return” to Japan, their ancestral homeland. The physical characteristics and cultural mannerisms of newcomer students frequently differ from their Japanese counterparts, and, their mastery of the Japanese language is often limited, which causes them to stand out in school. In addition to Nikkeijin, other newcomers include the children of Chinese returnees (i.e., war-displaced Japanese), Indo-Chinese refugees (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians), Southeast Asian women (e.g., Filipinas, Thais) married to Japanese men, and Koreans (Tsuneyoshi, Okano, & Spence Boocock, 2011). In 2016, there were 80,119 registered foreign children attending Japanese public schools (MEXT, 2017). Since the government does not maintain records concerning ethnicity or cultural heritage, the number of students who are Japanese citizens through naturalization or their parents’ marriage are not included in this statistic.

According to MEXT’s survey, there were 34,335 foreign students (a 17.6% increase from 2014) and 9,612 students with Japanese nationality (a 21.7% increase from 2014) who needed Japanese-language instruction in 2016 (MEXT, 2017). The schools that the students attended were dispersed geographically—the three largest areas were Aichi prefecture, Kanagawa prefecture, and Tokyo. More than 75% of these students attended majority-Japanese schools, which had fewer than five students who needed Japanese-language instruction. There are also students who attend ethnic (e.g., Korean, Brazilian, or Chinese) or international schools; many of these institutions are non-clause-1 miscellaneous schools (kakushu gakko) or schools without any legal status, and receive no government subsidy (Okano, 2013).

Compared to Dowa education, which had a structural perspective, education policies for newcomers are ineffective in advancing equity and cultural diversity—at least at the government level.

Since the goal of education in Japan is to nurture Japanese nationals, education for newcomers was never prioritized. MEXT has not developed a unique education system for foreign students but merely repurposed education polices that targeted Japanese returnees (kikokushijo) (Sato, 2010). Kikokushijo are Japanese children who lived abroad owing to their fathers’ job transfers; these youths later returned to Japan, where they entered mainstream schools (Goodman, 2012). Beginning in the 1960s, MEXT formulated returnee policies, including a quota system for high school and university admissions, which was similar in nature to affirmative action policies in the United States.

The emergence of returnees also promoted the development of education for international understanding. From 2001 to 2006, MEXT designated 33 local governments as pilot cases to promote internationalization of education through including returnee students and newcomer students. From the government’s viewpoint, the needs of Japanese returnees and newcomer students were similar, as they required Japanese-language instruction and adaptation education in order to acclimate themselves to Japanese schools. Nevertheless, there is a seeming lack of understanding regarding the structural, social, and cultural contexts that shape newcomer students’ lives. In general, many newcomers do not have Japanese citizenship, come from working-class backgrounds, have complex immigration histories, and do not possess the same degree of privilege afforded to returnee students. Although multicultural education requires structural reforms to schools to attain equity for students with diverse needs, the government has taken a palliative and supplementary approach that does not meaningfully affect mainstream society (Sato, 2010).

In line with the notion of equal treatment and assimilative policies (Burgess, 2007; Motani, 2002), MEXT has provided remedial education since 1989 to assist newcomers in adjusting to mainstream school culture (e.g., Japanese-language and adaptation classes). Some of MEXT’s newcomer education policies involve conducting surveys concerning foreign students who require Japanese-language instruction, while simultaneously providing partial funding to employ teachers of Japanese as a Second Language (JSL) at designated schools, the development of JSL curricula, and workshops for teachers who instruct newcomer students (MEXT, 2016). While MEXT’s policies toward Japanese returnees have shifted from an assimilationist approach (e.g., adaptation classes) to a more multicultural approach (e.g., perception of returnees as agents of internationalization) (Goodman, 2012; Nukaga & Tsuneyoshi, 2011), the policies toward newcomers take more of a deficit approach. Newcomer students are often blamed for lacking sufficient Japanese-language ability rather than being acknowledged for their bilingual or bicultural abilities and potential to become actors in the global community. A number of ethnographic studies have highlighted the experiences encountered by newcomer students of diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds, who often struggle to navigate assimilative school cultures wherein homogeneity and equality are emphasized (Burgess, 2007; Shimizu & Shimizu, 2001; Shimizu, 2006; Tokunaga, 2011).

Newcomers are not afforded equal learning opportunities compared to Japanese students, which is a critical issue given the goals of multicultural education. Scholars, policymakers, and practitioners have focused on school nonattendance among newcomers, as well as a tendency for them to drop out of high school or not to reach high school at all. Nevertheless, MEXT has not conducted any nationwide surveys regarding these issues, which further masks the problems faced by newcomer students. Whereas 98% of all Japanese students proceed to the high school level, approximately 50% of newcomers do not (Shimizu, 2008). Because a large percentage of newcomers lack a high school diploma, it is common for these individuals to work as part-time, low-wage, unskilled laborers in the manufacturing and services sectors, while recently there have been groups of academically successful newcomer students.

Although the national government falls short of providing multicultural education, some local governments, specifically those that have relatively large number of foreigners, have attempted to actualize equity and affirm the diversity of newcomer students. Similar to divergence of multicultural coexistence policies and practices seen across Japan, there are geographical differences in terms of the level of activeness of multicultural education. Some implemented special quota systems for high school admissions among newcomers; others provide funding to hire bilingual coordinators who facilitate communication between schools and students’ families. Still others strive to develop a school that values the concept of multicultural coexistence and build on the cultural strength of newcomer students and their families.

For example, in Kanagawa, one of the progressive prefectures in multicultural coexistence education, the Board of Education and ME-net, an NPO, codeveloped a multicultural education coordinator project in 2007. Coordinators visit high schools where immigrant students attend and collaborate with high school teachers to provide adequate support, such as linguistic and academic assistance; organize intercultural events and gatherings; prepare translators; offer career guidance; and conduct seminars for teachers (Tsuboya & Kobayashi, 2013). In addition, Shimofukuda Junior High School in Kanagawa introduced a special international elective class, wherein newcomers can explore the history and culture of their native countries and their immigration histories, and consider what it means to reside in Japan as a foreigner. Although this class targeted foreign students, it was part of the curriculum of a standard Japanese school (Shimizu, 2011).

As mentioned in the previous sections, Osaka has a particularly rich history with respect to Dowa education and Zainichi Korean education and has adopted progressive multicultural education policies and practices to serve the needs of newcomer students. In Osaka, a quota system exists for newcomer students, wherein the eligibility requirements for special exams are less rigid, and culturally sensitive testing is available (e.g., entrance examinations are conducted in students’ native languages) to help pupils gain admission to high school. In 2015, six Osaka high schools featured special quota systems intended to aid newcomers in being admitted. Moreover, some Osaka high schools attempt to affirm the ethnic identities, cultures, and languages of foreign pupils through extracurricular activities, school events, and language classes taught in students’ native tongues (e.g., Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Portuguese) (Shimizu, 2011).

Multicultural education in Japan also transpires outside of schools or through collaborations between schools and communities. Since there is a lack of multicultural education policies and practices in Japanese schools, numerous nonformal education sites, often volunteer-based, have played critical roles in achieving equity and affirming cultural diversity among newcomer students. Multiple local actors, including NPO/NGO staff, Japanese teachers and researchers, newcomer youths and parents, college students, and community volunteers, have supported newcomer education. Given the lack of resources and educational struggles faced by newcomer students, many organizations have provided academic support (e.g., tutoring for school subjects and high school entrance examinations), Japanese-language instruction, and career guidance. Many organizations attempt to function as ibasho, which means a place where one feels a sense of safety, comfort, and acceptance. Creating ibasho for minority students is one of the priorities of these local education actors.

There are also entities that attempt to affirm the cultural and linguistic identities of newcomers through programs where students can learn their native languages (or those of their parents), immigration histories, and cultural traditions. These grass-roots organizations have collaborated with local governments, boards of education, and schools to provide career guidance, as well as supplying multicultural education coordinators, translators, and native-language instructors and conducting surveys. Although many of these organizations are volunteer based, with unstable funding and structures, they nonetheless collectively strive to transform assimilative education policies into more equitable ones in an attempt to empower newcomer students and increase their inclusion in Japanese society.

Future Prospects of Multicultural Education in Japan

As Japanese society experiences multiculturalization from below, multicultural education or so-called multicultural coexistence education will continue to evolve to promote social justice, coexistence, and educational equity for students from diverse cultural backgrounds. In Japan, multicultural education as a field is undergoing a process where it is developing in conjunction with related disciplines, such as human rights and education for international understanding, while also appropriating Western theories, models, and practices. Given the rich history of Dowa education and Zainichi Korean education, scholars should attempt to expand, deepen, and reimagine the scope of multicultural education through incorporating and interconnecting education of often-invisible minorities, including Burakumin, Zainichi Koreans, the Ainu, and Okinawans. In moving forward, it is extremely important to historicize multicultural education developed within Japan, rather than merely adopting Western approaches of multicultural education to a Japanese context.

In addition, since numerous case studies of multicultural coexistence education policies and practices have been reported across Japan, theorization of Japanese multicultural education based on these cases is needed. Rather than taking a school-centered approach, scholars should also shed light on a strong grass-roots movement of multicultural coexistence education undertaken by concerned teachers, local governments, NPOs and NGOs, researchers, parents, and community organizers, often collaboratively. These entities have long attempted to raise awareness of problems facing minority students, provide support, and encourage schools and local governments to provide equitable and inclusive education, which has gradually shaped the policies and practices of the Japanese version of multicultural education from below.

Finally, following the Japanese human rights education approach, scholars could adopt so-called minority perspectives that move beyond the category of “ethnic minority.” Given the rise of education issues involving child poverty (kodomo no hinkon), sexual minorities, and students with disabilities, some scholars assert that multicultural education should extend to other marginalized minority groups rather than only ethnic minorities. Since these minorities lack access to equitable education and their differences are commonly unappreciated, the lens of multicultural education could be effective. By taking an intersectional approach to minority perspectives, insight can be gained to make visible of the majority population and acknowledge internal diversity and differences within the Japanese. Scholars, policymakers, and educators could broaden education approaches and transform assimilative and exclusive education policies and practices into more equitable and inclusive ones for all.


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