A graceful hand to help elderly Japanese in Holland

Chieko van Santen, longtime resident of the Netherlands, knows all about living overseas

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

In 1941, in the then Dutch East Indies, thousands of people were forced into internment camps by the invading Japanese army. It is a slice of history almost forgotten today, along with so many other wartime atrocities. It is something Chieko van Santen remembers every day, as the Japanese widow of a Dutch national whose father, a civilian businessman, died in one of the camps.

From her home in Wassenaar, a small town north of The Hague, Chieko, 67, now volunteers to help aging Japanese nationals living overseas with her organization, Nichiran Silvernet Foundation.

Chieko was born at the end of World War II in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, and was raised by a single mother. Everywhere in Japan, life was difficult in the aftermath of the war, but her mother “really gave me everything,” she recalls. “Whatever I showed interest in, she found a way for me to do it. Ballet lessons, Japanese dance lessons, ikebana, tea ceremony and all kinds of things.”

Her mother worked first as a schoolteacher and later as a government official. “She was a strong woman. Highly educated for that time,” Chieko remembers.

She stayed in Onomichi until graduation from high school, then studied English literature at a university. She accepted a job at the Osaka office of a Dutch textiles trading company “to practice my English.” It was there that she met her husband-to-be. As director of the trading company in Japan, he had recently been appointed from a branch in Singapore. They met when he was visiting the Osaka branch from his base in Tokyo. A whirlwind courtship quickly passed and in six months they were married.

Settling in Tokyo, they stayed for 15 years and raised two boys. Although Chieko was aware of his past, they didn’t discuss his own of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies.

“Whenever we talked about it, my husband merely said, ‘I do not see you as a Japanese, but only as one woman.’ But when we got engaged, my uncle asked me, ‘Don’t you know Dutch history?’ My mother said, with memories of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, ‘At least he is not American!’ “

Although her mother accepted the marriage and welcomed her grandchildren, it was a challenge for Chieko to put aside her feelings from the war.

Raising her bicultural children in the 1970s, she likewise faced challenges. International marriages weren’t common at the time, and her children drew quite a lot of attention — whether good or bad — from other people. “I always told them, you are not half, you are double. With not much effort, you can have two languages and both cultures.”

Then her husband suddenly announced he wanted the family to move to Holland. “I was already 40 years old, and the boys were 13 and 10. I had never lived outside of Japan. It was quite a big change.”

Luckily, the family had visited the Netherlands many times. “My husband’s mother always welcomed me, and never said a word about history or her husband’s death in one of the camps. Later, I realized how difficult it must have been for her to accept a Japanese daughter-in-law.”

The family moved to Holland in 1984. For several years, most of her energy went into ensuring the children were settled. It was hard at first for everyone. Adjusting to the move, finding the right school for each of the boys, adapting herself to her new home, Chieko sometimes became discouraged.

“When my boys were teenagers they had a difficult time, and I said to them, ‘Well, your foreign mother is suffering too,’ but they told me, ‘You chose this marriage, we didn’t choose the two cultures, two countries from two parents.’ “

Chieko laughs now, with both their children happy as bicultural, bilingual adults, each now in an international marriage of his own. But it was partly these difficult early experiences in Holland that sparked Chieko’s determination to support other Japanese nationals throughout the Netherlands.

Chieko became interested in the fate of children born to Dutch or Indonesian women and Japanese soldiers during the wartime occupation. In many cases the children of such unions were torn away from one parent and lived divided between the two countries.

“I realized some of these now-grown children had a very difficult life, trying to keep this fact a secret for a long time, but now they wanted to search for their Japanese fathers before it was too late.”

Chieko’s efforts led her to Japan-based groups to help reconnect these parents and children.

Fate stepped in, however, and she first had to support her ailing husband, who in 1994 was diagnosed with emphysema.

As his health steadily declined, Chieko realized how both communication and support are necessary among the elderly. Because she couldn’t speak Dutch fluently, she began to imagine the problems a non-Dutch-speaking resident would find as they grew older.

The final proof came from the experience of her husband’s mother. “I saw my mother-in-law in a retirement home. It is wonderful if you are Dutch. All the announcements, all the games, everything is in Dutch. You are served bread and cheese or potatoes every day, but the whole idea put me off. I wanted to somehow make a Japanese old person’s home in Holland.”

With the support of her husband, she begin researching possibilities. She enlisted the help of a local Japanese women’s club she belonged to, an informal gathering to drink tea and make connections, and soon the idea of Nichiran Silvernet Foundation was born.

She started with three members and herself. They began organizing various outreach projects and soon the numbers grew. As Silvernet’s members are spread throughout the Netherlands, many activities are organized around interests or hobbies. From a gardening group to singing to studying history, these groups keep the women connected and active.

Chieko is most proud of the Help and Care Team: “Each month we have a telephone circle, o-genki desuka circle, a simple way to check on people, especially the elderly who live alone. We also visit people who need help with chores or volunteers shop once a month at Japanese grocery stores and deliver to the elderly. We organize visits when someone is hospitalized, bringing Japanese food, and we have various members who can translate between Dutch and Japanese if necessary. Bit by bit, we try to make life easier.”

Silvernet made life easier for Chieko, giving her energy and focus when her husband passed away in 2007. In less than 10 years, the group has grown to about 130 members, and they soon discovered there are similar groups all over Europe, including in Switzerland, Germany, France and Britain.

Chieko believes that it is proof that there is a common need for Japanese people who came to Europe or other countries “whether in an international marriage or to study art or music and settled here.” Silvernet corresponds frequently with these groups, sharing pamphlets or experiences, and Chieko met recently with members of the group in Switzerland, Care Team Japan, when she visited one of her sons there.

Although Silvernet still dreams of a central location to organize activities, Chieko recognizes that starting a Japanese retirement home in Holland would be difficult. As it is now, running Silvernet takes a lot of organization and planning, but for Chieko, the effort proves immensely rewarding. “This is really when I feel best, when just one person is happy because of Silvernet.”

Most of the organization falls to her, as “the younger members still have families at home, and the elderly people cannot do very much extra.” Still, she finds time to return to Japan most years, and visits her sons and their families in Amsterdam and Paris.

And, she remembers. “We Japanese should not forget our history. It is our decision if we live overseas, and even if it may be difficult sometimes, I hope Japanese people living in Japan will understand that we are trying to represent Japan, to show the best of Japan overseas.”

For more information on Chieko van Santen’s organization, see www.nichiran.org/index_en.html