Yoshiaki Nomura has taught Japanese to foreign residents for 13 years. The retired engineer, who has participated in overseas projects in Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, works at an evening volunteer class in Nerima city.

The Nerima Japanese Circle, of which Nomura is a part, was established in 1996 to support Japanese orphans and families repatriated from China. The group focused on fostering the necessary language skills to ensure the repatriates could “live in the local community without struggling.”

Now the circle is helping to teach free Japanese lessons to just some of the 1.66 million foreign workers now living in Japan, a number that has risen for 12 straight years, according to The Japan Times. Tokyo municipalities with a high number of foreign residents include Edogawa, Arakawa and Minato. As of last year, one in eight residents of Shinjuku was a foreign citizen.

Grasping the Native Tongue

Moving to Japan is one thing. Living in Tokyo and navigating the diurnal requirements is another. Without adequate language skills, it is difficult to make the country one’s home. Language learning is an uphill battle for new immigrants with limited means who, by necessity, work long hours.

If the best things in life are free, or at least nearly so, then this is certainly true of the morning and evening Japanese language classes offered by every ward in Tokyo. Last year, the Japanese government passed a new law under which central and municipal governments are to be held responsible for the promotion of Japanese-language education for foreign residents.

These classes are run by volunteer groups, and are facilitated through local governments. The aim of these lessons is to bring the foreign resident up to speed in basic conversation, listening, reading and writing.

Shinjuku city has the widest variety of options. SNN Activities are a series of free afternoon classes held at the Shinjuku Multicultural Plaza. Shinjuku also has the evening volunteer-run Japanese classes, and there are also classes with babysitting services. Detailed information is available on the city’s website.

More Than Just a Language Class

Joining these volunteer-run classes gives the student the chance to interact with other foreign residents, thus easing the loneliness of newcomers to Japan and that of the denizens of the megalopolis. The student also gains further insights into Japanese culture through their teachers.

The thorough methodology is a hallmark of the culture. The classes I attend include pupils of all age groups. Though the group is large, classes are one-on-one, and though rigorously planned, are lively and fun. One wonders where these volunteers find the energy.

My teacher is the mother of two adult children and is now a caregiver. She tells me there are 19 volunteer Japanese groups in Nerima city all with different purposes and motivations. The weekly class I attend costs ¥500 a month for the instruction and 90 minutes of laughs and learning.

Tailored for Your Needs

The Association for Arakawa International Communication calls their classes Japanese Salon, and are tailored to the needs of advanced students. There is also a class for elementary level students.

If you live in Minato Ward, you can turn to the Minato International Association for Japanese lessons, but they are not free. The good news is there is a 50% subsidy for city residents on the ¥9,000 to ¥9,500 fee payable by members, and ¥10,000 to ¥12,000 fee payable by non-members. Textbooks are included. The fee is based on your reading ability and knowledge of hiragana and katakana.

Those living in the suburbs can also take advantage of these economical classes. Kawasaki residents can contact KIAN, the Kawasaki International Association. Maina Sato from KIAN says these classes have been running since 1995. The current semester has 30-40 students attending both the morning and evening classes. The fee is ¥550 per lesson.

How to Find a Class Near You

Prospective students should note that nearly all volunteer-run classes are suspended due to the ongoing pandemic. Depending on your local area, the reopening date may vary. In the meantime, gaining a basic knowledge of katakana and hiragana and brushing up on some elementary kanji will help prepare you for the resumption of classes, or put you on the fast track to success when you decide to join.

For a comprehensive overview of the classes available in Tokyo, the Tokyo Nihongo Volunteer Network’s guide is an excellent resource. The guide provides a ward-by-ward overview of the available classes and their cost.

Now you know that even on a restricted budget, you can still enjoy learning Japanese and meeting people, there are no more excuses. After all, who would make an excuse to have fun?