Derek Matsuda: Discussant Comment

International Symposium: The Egalitarian Norway
Discussant Comment

Lecturer, Center for International Education/Institute for Global Leadership, Ochanomizu University

I study international education and immigration, and the following comments come from that perspective. As Professor Ringrose mentioned, Norway often appears high up in the international ranking for gender equality. Other countries that struggle with achieving gender equality can learn a lot from the experience of Norway and observing its current condition.

Norway’s advances are usually considered largely positive, but Professor Ringrose’s critical insights have indicated the presence of some rarely acknowledged negative facts behind that success. Equality has been a major keyword in this symposium, and I have thought deeply about this term over a long period. In international education, equality tends to imply equality of results. As we seek to achieve equality, the emphasis must be on equity, not equality. The illustration below (Chart 1) is a good illustration of the difference between the terms. Let us say that we wish to grant to all of the members of a group the ability to watch a baseball game over a board fence, and we have boxes that we can allocate in service of this end. However, we do not give each person one box, as a tall person may not need a box, and a short person may need two. This insight can be applied to measures of social equality. That is, those who have greater difficulty must receive extra support to overcome their disadvantages such that an equality of results can be achieved. I think that this illustration is a simple but effective example to present the idea that an equality of results can be achieved through the provision of support based on the idea of equity. This consideration occurred to me as I listened to Professor Ringrose’s keynote speech.

Chart 1: Difference between equality and equity

A number of factors of equality were discussed in the keynote, among which one particularly caught my interest. I will briefly consider it as a possibly helpful illustration of the nature of equality.

We have just heard discussions of several minority groups in Norway, such as LGBTQ people, immigrants and their children, and indigenous people. My comments will focus on immigrants.

It has been noted that in Norway, immigrants and their children make up 18.2% of the total population. In Japan, the proportion of foreign residents to the total population is relatively small, at 2.3%. Since 2012, the population of foreign residents has been increasing every year, while the Japanese population is decreasing. Among the foreign residents in Japan, there are more women than men (Chart 2).

Chart 2: Total Number of Foreign Residents in Japan and by Gender
Ministry of Justice statistics in Japanese:

Despite this, little work has been done to study female immigrants in Japan, and their difficulties are largely unknown. Research in Western countries often describe a double challenge for female immigrants. The chart on the right (Chart 3) is employment information in an informational magazine for South American immigrants in Japan. Here, the relative wages received by men and women are clearly presented. Where differences in wage by gender are not precisely known, a wide range of wage rates is indicated, and it is known that women’s wages are lower than those of men.

Right: Chart 3: Employment information in a magazine for South American immigrants in Japan

Immigrants who arrived in Japan in 1990 and after are called new-comers. This group includes significant numbers of people from China, the Philippines, and Brazil. In those countries, traditional gendered divisions of labor, in which the husbands are the breadwinners and the wives stay home and do household chores and child rearing, are common. These foreign-born residents usually maintain that division of labor within their families. Many take on unskilled work, and the husband’s income is often insufficient to support his family. Thus, the wife inevitably bears a double burden, working outside the home and being responsible for the housework.

After the end of the 1990s, a tendency has been seen for migrant workers to settle in Japan, and many foreign residents are raising their children there. In all, 93,133 children who have a non-Japanese nationality are attending school (primary, junior high, and high school). Of these, 40,485 students need Japanese language support. Schools are entrusted with evaluating whether students need language guidance, and no evaluation standard is provided. Some Japanese students also require language support. For example, families with an international marriage and naturalized Japanese citizens tend to use non-Japanese languages at home, and their children are not always fluent in Japanese. In total, more than 50,000 children need Japanese language support. While Japan does provide nationality-based statistics, children’s ethnicity is invisible. Thus, to determine who needs extra support at schools, we must examine the report of an investigation conducted by The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Reference: Survey on Acceptance of Students who require Japanese Language Education, 2018 (in Japanese)The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

The diagram below (Chart 4) shows the issues that children who have foreign roots face.

Chart 4: Issues children with foreign roots face

Regardless of whether a child with foreign roots is born in Japan or not, Japanese is less likely to be the everyday language used at home. Instead, either the native language of the parents or a combination of this language and Japanese is spoken. It often appears that when children start their school education, they do not have sufficient language skills in Japanese. Linguistics studies indicate a difference between the use of language for communication and for study. Using language for study requires understanding logical explanations and abstract concepts. Children with foreign roots often struggle with learning these uses in Japanese. The difficulty of learning a language for study purposes influences children’s school achievement. As a result, some children do not go on to high school. It should also be noted that school is not only a place where children study but is also a site of socialization in the context of Japanese school culture. Foreign-born parents may be unfamiliar with extracurricular activities, friendship relations, and school events at Japanese schools, and they often do not find these matters important. Thus, children tend to feel pressure from two sides: from the school and from the parents. This may also cause identity crises. Support systems for these children are not well developed, support for their self-realization is insufficient, and they may not have any adult advisor or role model.

As I mentioned, many mothers in foreign resident families work both outside and inside their homes, and they tend to be responsible for their children’s educational matters.

The next diagram (Chart 5) shows the discrepancy in the views between teachers and foreign resident parents (in most cases the mothers) of their child education.

Chart 5: Discrepancy in the views between teachers and foreign resident parents

In Japanese schools, information for parents is distributed through their children. Parents learn about school events and what is necessary to prepare for them through printed materials or a correspondence notebook. It is crucially important that parents of school children read these documents, but parents who do not read Japanese often do not understand this system. Coming from a different school culture, they cannot understand what they are expected to do by Japanese schools. Many parents consider their children to be fluent in Japanese, and they trust they say as an accurate translation of messages sent by the schools. As a result, parents may fail to prepare what their children are asked to bring to school and what they need to participate in events. From the teachers’ point of view, these parents seem uninterested in their children’s education or uncooperative. However, research has shown that foreign resident parents in fact prioritize their children’s education and consider that they are working to achieve that objective. Japan has schools for foreigners and international schools, but many parents choose Japanese public schools for their children with a view to the future. However, in doing so, these parents encounter difficulties at schools. They do not know how and from whom they can receive support, so they inevitably rely on their children.

While the mother is important for a child, socialization at a public school may integrate a child into the majority culture, whereupon the child may come to consider their mother to be part of a minority. As such children grow, the mother’s dignity loses its power, and mothers begin to find it hard to take part of their children’s education. In addition, it becomes more difficult to teach the children the mother tongue of their parents and sustain their culture at home.

Those issues that foreign resident mothers face are little known and under-researched in Japan. The majority Japanese society knows little about the family lives of foreign residents. It is important to recognize issues that are relevant to the rights and needs of foreign resident women in Japan who suffer from this double challenge. Research on the actual state of their lives must be the first step in developing a support system that can produce equality of results.

As we have returned equality, I would like to note a problem that resides in this term. In the discussions of Japanese education, equality often appears as a concept. Some Japanese parents express a frustration on this score, saying, “The school provides special treatment to foreigners’ children. Our children’s education is being sacrificed to them. I would like all children to be treated equally.” This ideal of equal education for every student may lead to this complaint, and teachers who worry about it may be reluctant to provide necessary support to the children of foreign residents. Teachers’ goodwill sometimes prompts them to choose an assimilation approach to these children. They may believe that it is good for children with non-Japanese roots to follow the same path as Japanese children. The benefits of this assimilation approach in school education are doubtful, however. For Japan to be an egalitarian country, it needs not only education for minority groups but also education for the majority regarding multiculturalism. This approach has been advocated by the American educator James Banks, a pioneer of multicultural education.

It is obvious that the number of foreign residents in Japan will continue to increase as the Japanese government continues to promote a policy of inviting foreign workers. There is much to learn from the experience of Norway as an egalitarian country that is quite advanced in this regard, including the details of its policies and measures. Nevertheless, Japan should develop policies and measures that are best applicable to Japanese realities and find Japanese ways to become more of an egalitarian country. We should also be more aware that the choices that each of us make can decide the future of Japan.

Foreign residents are only 2.3% of the total population of Japan, but they cannot be simply dismissed as a non-factor. I think that a true egalitarian country cares for the minority groups that live within it and addresses problems they face. This is what Japan must seek to do. I have thus focused on equality and equity in Japan here, and I am interested to learn how these terms are discussed in Norway. If there is time later, I would like to hear Professor Ringrose’s thoughts on this matter.


Derek MATSUDA is a lecturer at the Center for International Education and the Institute for Global Leadership at Ochanomizu University. His research interests include multicultural education, cross-cultural understanding, immigrant roots and routes, and intercultural education. He has studied these themes since his undergraduate years and has written theses on relevant topics such as the educational problems that confront Peruvian immigrant parents and the way Japanese society responds to their problems. He is currently engaged in a project entitled “A New Educational Support from the Situation of the Acculturation of the Non-Japanese Children in Japan” (Grant-in-Aid for Early-Career Scientists <KAKENHI>, JSPS, 2019–2022), which intends to develop a supportive educational system in Japan for children from cross-cultural and cross-national backgrounds.