Japan's Ministry of Education is gradually moving to "internationalize" the traditionally inward-looking national education system, but its latest "internationalization" measure has shocked many of those concerned with human rights issues in Japan, and sparked a nationwide protest movement.

One long-standing barrier to multiculturalism and cross-border mobility is the system of entrance examinations to Japan's national universities. While a majority of private and local universities allow all students who have completed twelve years of education to sit for their entrance exams, only students who have graduated from the officially-authorized Japanese school system are eligible to take entrance exams for the prestigious national universities. This ruling excludes the children of permanent residents who attend "ethnic schools" - serving the needs of the Korean and Chinese communities and migrants from Latin America (many of them Brazilians of Japanese ancestry) - as well as pupils at international schools in Japan. If these students wish to apply for entrance to a national university, they must first prepare for and take a highly competitive qualifying exam, which generally involves prolonged attendance at night school on top of their already heavy school schedule.

The situation has received critical attention from international human rights bodies, who have questioned the reasons for discrimination against ethnic schools, particularly in a situation where the national school system does little or nothing to address the educational needs of minority communities in Japan. Responding to pressure, the Ministry agreed to consider opening up the examination system. But on March 6 it stunned observers by announcing that it would abolish the existing restriction - but only in the case of the international schools, which cater primarily for students from English or French speaking backgrounds. Students from Korean, Chinese and other ethnic schools will continue to be excluded.

The Ministry's explanation for this extraordinary piece of discrimination is that international schools participate in international accreditation schemes, while "ethnic" schools do not. But the explanation has failed to impress those familiar with minority rights issues in Japan. The issue at stake here, after all, is merely one of deciding who may sit for examinations. The examinations themselves are supposed to be the hurdle which determines who has the necessary knowledge and skills to enter national universities.

Ironically, the Japanese government has previously sought to defend itself against accusations of discrimination against Korean schools by emphasizing the fact that the ban applied equally to all foreign schools, regardless of national affiliation.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the decision have been official comments suggesting that present circumstances make it advisable to postpone a decision on accreditation for students from ethnic schools. This appears to be a veiled reference to the current upsurge of popular hostility towards North Korea in Japan, following revelations of the abduction incidents by the North Korean government and tensions surrounding North Korea's nuclear and missiles program. Schools set up by North Korean affiliated communities in Japan make up the largest and longest established group of ethnic schools in Japan.

Responding to North Korean militarism by restricting the opportunities of ethnic school students, regardless of their very varied individual backgrounds and opinions, would certainly mark a bizarre new departure in international diplomacy. Many of the affected students are third or fourth generation residents in Japan, and a substantial proportion come from communities which have no connection with North Korea whatsoever. The question now being asked is whether the Japanese government is shaping its policies to suit a public mood in which fear or North Korea is starting to spill over into general hostility and prejudice towards the Korean community in Japan.

After a decade or so of gradual but real improvement in the situation of minority communities in Japan, this is worrying reversal. To many observers, the newly announced "internationalization" measure seems to fly in the face of every internationally recognized principle of social justice and human rights.

Back to Home