Local education authorities across Japan are struggling to secure classrooms for an increasing number of special-needs children who, in some cases, are even being forced to attend classes in school building hallways.

Even as schools for such children are scrambling to expand classroom capacity, the country faces a dilemma, with calls also growing internationally for it to integrate them with their peers in regular classes.

Japan's education system for special-needs students has been called into question by a United Nations panel and the voices against separating them are becoming louder domestically as well, although the central government does not appear likely to budge.

One expert who is in favor of embracing integration said, "The danger is that if special-needs education becomes the norm, it will move a long way from what it was originally meant to be."

Photo taken on Nov. 16, 2023, shows the Gunma Prefectural School for Special Education in Isesaki, eastern Japan, a special-needs school which is rapidly aging. (Kyodo)

On one day in October, cheers from children rang out from a music class being held in a first-floor hallway at the Gunma Prefectural School for Special Education in Isesaki, eastern Japan.

A total of 10 fifth-grade students had brought their chairs from a classroom into the hallway to listen to nursery rhymes and voice their impressions.

Despite the enjoyment of the children, the echoes from the music that reverberated throughout the school would sometimes disrupt the concentration of other children studying in classrooms.

The school currently has a total of 167 students enrolled from the first to the ninth grade. In the past decade, the number of students has increased from about 110, and physical education and athletics practice are among classes held in the hallways.

The school building has become noticeably dilapidated, and the prefectural government plans to renovate part of it and build a new section for senior high school students, but the implementation scheduled for fiscal 2027 is a long way off.

According to the education ministry, while the number of elementary, junior high, and high school students nationwide is falling, the number of special-needs students is increasing every year, totaling more than 150,000 as of May this year.

As of October 2021, there was a shortage of 3,740 classrooms at all of the public special-needs schools across the country.

In response to the increase in students, some special-needs schools are restructuring to integrate students with disabilities with their peers in general education classrooms -- a trend being seen more and more internationally.

For example, at the Ishikawa Prefectural School for Students with Special Needs in Kanazawa, central Japan, there are plans afoot to move some of the senior high school students to the site of a regular high school in the city and hold some of the classes jointly.

Parents of some of the students being forced to change schools, however, are demanding consideration be made for their children who will have to adjust to a new environment.

Whether students with disabilities should be integrated with others in regular classes in the first place remains a controversial issue in Japan.

In September last year, the United Nations' Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recommended that Japan cease special-needs education, saying that children with disabilities are being segregated from students in regular classrooms.

Although the education ministry has said it "will improve the system so that students can receive education together as much as possible," Keiko Nagaoka, the minister at the time, stated at a press conference following the recommendation that she is "not considering discontinuing the program," all but assuring that the status quo would be maintained.

The ministry says the reason for the increase in special-needs students is that "understanding has broadened about education based on disabilities and particular traits."

But even after the recommendation, some children with disabilities may have had no choice but go to special-needs schools.

Volunteer groups for such children say they have received a barrage of complaints from parents who said the school boards would not allow them to place their children in local elementary schools even after they made requests to do so.

"The essential point of inclusive education is not to separate groups of people who are always together, such as in class, based on whether or not they have a disability," said Yoshihiro Kokuni, a professor in the history of education at the University of Tokyo.

He fears that separating students at the school level "could become a gateway to a society that segregates people with disabilities."

Instead, Kokuni urged making a shift to developing human resources and creating an environment in which students can study without distinction.

Related coverage:

Facilities for disabled face serious labor shortages in Japan: survey