Public schools turn to non-Japanese teachers

Third-grade students at Osaka municipal Kita-Nakajima Primary School get insights into culture on the Korean Peninsula that many others do not.

Their homeroom teacher is Lee Chi I, 31, a third-generation South Korean living in Japan. Lee’s grandfather came from South Korea’s Gyeongsangnam-do, but she was born and raised in Aichi Prefecture.

Students at the school in Yodogawa Ward include children of Koreans living in Japan, but Lee introduces musical instruments such as the chango, a Korean drum, to all the pupils in her music class.

Lee is one of an increasing number of foreign nationals teaching at public primary, middle and high schools across the country. An estimated 200 non-Japanese teachers, mainly Koreans living in Japan, teach at schools in 25 prefectures, including Osaka, Hyogo, Kanagawa and Kyoto.

The government approved the hiring of teachers with a foreign nationality at public schools in 1991.

According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, foreign national teachers can be “full-time lecturers with unlimited tenure,” but they are not eligible to hold management positions, such as being the senior classroom teacher. They have the same educational authority as Japanese teachers, and can be homeroom teachers.

The Osaka prefectural and municipal governments started hiring foreign national teachers on their own accord in the 1970s. Although they stopped this practice in 1982 in line with an instruction from the central government, they resumed hiring non-Japanese in 1993 following the abolition of the Japanese nationality requirement. This academic year, 135 non-Japanese were teachers in the prefecture.

Lee had gone by the Japanese name Chisato Miyamoto until she graduated from university.

“I felt deep down as if I was hiding my true self,” she said of those years.

Lee decided to identify herself by her real Korean name following advice from members of the Osaka Municipal Board of Education and the principal who hired her as a teacher six years ago.

“They told me children who have roots on the Korean Peninsula would be encouraged if I used my real Korean name,” Lee said.

Lee now teaches children about Korean culture and has explained her ethnic background to students and their parents.

An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of foreign national teachers in Osaka Prefecture have revealed their ethnic roots in their schools.

Fifty-two foreign national teachers from 11 cities in the prefecture shared their experiences at the inaugural meeting of a network of teachers with roots in foreign countries, held in Osaka on Nov. 7. They plan to hold meetings to discuss their ethnic backgrounds and educational issues.