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Addressing Negativity Towards "Kikokushijo"

By ANNA MATSUO

Kikokushijo look just like local students - so what is it that's different? ULC Institute of Education | Flickr.

“I don’t like kikokushijo.” Some local Japanese students are frank about their opinions on kikokushijo. When I ask why, a typical answer might be “because they didn’t struggle to learn a language. They never had to study to become fluent.” That every kikokushijo learned their second language naturally and did not struggle, I believe, is one of the many major misconceptions and stereotypes about kikokushijo that must be addressed on our college campus and by the Japanese society at large.


Kikokushijo(帰国子女) is a Japanese term for Japanese children who lived abroad for a period of their life (most likely due to their parents’ business assignments) and since then have returned to Japan. As globalization races forward and Japanese companies send more and more employees overseas, the number of kikokushijo, or returnees, have increased every year.

I, myself, am a kikokushijo. I was born in Chiba prefecture, and moved to the United States when I was six years old. Just last autumn, I moved back to Japan to attend PEAK at The University of Tokyo. Thankfully, I have not yet met anyone who has been particularly hostile to me because of the fact that I am a returnee-- especially as a PEAK student who doesn’t have too much interaction with local students, I dodge the risk of meeting those who may hold biases against kikokushijo. But recently, I learned that there are, in fact, many kikokushijo that are ippansei( 一般生; students on the local-student track) at The University of Tokyo and other universities in Japan. I had the opportunity to speak with them about the biases and negativity kikokushijo face, and here are three reasons and arguments for why ippansei supposedly dislike kikokushijo, along with some counterarguments from our perspective.

1. “Kikokushijo like to show off.”

Some local Japanese people feel that kikokushijo are trying to show off when we speak about our time abroad or mix English words and phrases in our conversations. As, J, a kikokushijo student at UT says, “in Japan, not many people are bilingual so when you are able to speak English you are seen as special, different, and sometimes privileged.” But the truth is, sometimes we really don't have anything else to talk about from our childhood, or we can't remember some words in Japanese. To take these actions as "showing off" doesn't seem fair to us. After having grown up in two or more cultures, kikokushijo hold a multicultural identity. Much of the way we speak and act were picked up while growing up abroad. Hence, our actions are sometimes seen as unnatural to the rest of Japanese society. Despite the fact that we identified as Japanese when we were abroad, we are suddenly considered unnatural in Japan. An understanding that we are not trying to “show off” when we talk about our times abroad would be greatly appreciated.

2. “Kikokushijo get into University more easily than local students.”

Kikokushijo are thought to have “cheated” the normal entrance examination process because they have a completely different (westernized) admission process, which is supposedly “easier.” Maybe we didn't spend hours every day at a cram school to prepare for the center examination or entrance examination for 3+ years, but we, too, did study hard for our respective standardized tests such as IB, SAT/ACT, and CBSE/JEE (standardized tests in India). Not only were we expected to do well on those tests, we needed to have a near-perfect GPA in school and have participated in many extracurricular activities to even be considered admission. Ippansei should not easily say "kikokushijo don't have to be as smart as us to get in." One admission process is not easier than the other. According to Professor Yujin Yaguchi, Director of the Globalization Office and professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, it is unfair to judge kikokushijo by applying standards of Japanese high schools, and although the idea of a different admission process is to diversify the student body, that does not mean kikokushijo are any less than the ippansei academically. “Students are obsessed with the entrance part,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how you got in, it’s how you perform.” Students should have faith that the university will choose students fit for the academic level of the school, and stop internalizing the admissions myth. From a faculty perspective, there is no obvious difference in academic levels between a typical ippansei and a typical kikokushijo, according to Professor Yaguchi.

3. “Kikokushijo didn’t struggle to learn a second language.”

This is just not true at all. Of course, I admit that I had it easier because I went overseas when I was a first grader, which meant that my academic and linguistic starting point wasn’t too far behind that of the American kids’. But for other returnees, it wasn’t as easy. “Since I went to live in the US for the first time when I was a junior in high school, I couldn’t understand what teachers and my friends were saying at first,” a kikokushijo student in the ippansei track, H, recalls. For her, the language barrier was just a part of the cultural barrier. The language and culture barrier can affect even a gregarious and eager student who likes to interact with their new surroundings. They may struggle to understand grammatical or cultural differences in connotation that come naturally to a native speaker. Thus, cultural immersion can be both a blessing and a hardship to overcome for kikokushijo.

By addressing these stereotypes, I hope that the local students will come to understand that kikokushijo are not immune to hardships and are not trying to brag about their English/past experiences abroad. As H says on the topic of admission, “I believe that everyone has had different kinds of hard times…So I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude which is harder or smarter.” It is not reasonable to compare kikokushijo and local students’ educational and cultural background with the same standards. The important thing, then, is to shed light to those differences and understand where the individual is coming from.

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