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Peruvian offers lifeline for Spanish-speaking expats

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Sonia Romero de Hara was surprised years ago when she was woken by a phone call late at night from a Peruvian-Japanese friend living in Fussa, western Tokyo.

The friend said that police officers had visited her after the local police station received a complaint from a neighbor that music being played at her house was too loud. The friend spoke little Japanese and was unable to clearly explain the situation to the officers.

Romero de Hara rushed to her friend’s place by car from her house in Hachioji and helped explain, in Japanese, to the police that the volume of music was at a level believed to be OK in Peru. She also explained that the friend did not have enough money to go to a karaoke studio — which the police suggested she should do.

“I would go everywhere — to schools, banks and hospitals, and translate from Spanish to Japanese, and vice versa,” said Romero de Hara, a Peruvian housewife who for nearly two decades now has helped many Spanish-speaking South Americans deal with problems encountered in their daily lives while living in Japan. As a certified psychologist back home, she went on to offer counseling to those expats, mostly on a voluntary basis.

Many of those people, she says, “feel very isolated. They basically want someone to talk to in their own language.”

When they are confronted with psychological problems, they initially seek counseling at local hospitals, but they often remain frustrated after the psychiatrists give them only 10 to 15 minutes of consultations in Japanese, she says.

During Japan’s bubble economy in the late 1980s, large numbers of people of Japanese descent from South American countries, including Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, came to Japan for manual labor. In the communities where these people eventually settled, some of their children have faced difficulties adjusting to the Japanese school system — often due to poor language ability, said Romero de Hara, who has witnessed many children of these families drop out of school.

“Both parents are working and don’t have the time to take care of their child as much as they want to. Therefore, the child is alone in the house, and just play video games. Those children aren’t happy,” she said.

“In general, people say they feel lonely. The Japanese don’t talk in the train or in the bus or in the park. This is not the case in Peru. A lot of them feel that the Japanese are not friendly, and that they are being discriminated against. They need friends whom they could talk to,” Romero de Hara said.

She tries to be there for such people — and offers counseling at her house and also visiting people who need advice at the place where they live. Recently, she traveled to Aichi Prefecture following a request from several residents from South American countries who had sought her help.

Romero de Hara says she originally did not think of providing such a service until she was asked by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to provide counseling in Spanish to expatriates living in Tokyo. The number of people seeking her out for counseling increased after she placed an advertisement in a free magazine for Spanish-speaking people.

Through her experience of living in Japan for a total of 23 years, Romero de Hara thinks that a lot of the problems people from South America are facing here — either with everyday matters or psychological troubles — derive from differences in the Latin-American and Japanese cultures.

When her son was growing up in Japan, she would go to the park with him after picking him up at kindergarten, only to find few children playing there. “My husband told me later, ‘You don’t know the Japanese children. They go to swimming lessons or to piano lessons, and Kumon (a cram school).’ I was surprised to hear him say that, because Peruvian children are different and play much more,” she said.

Romero de Hara, who is now a fluent Japanese speaker, says she initially did not speak much Japanese and had to make an effort to learn the language. One of the key factors for foreign children who are of kindergarten age to adapt to Japanese society, she says, is for the mothers to learn the Japanese language and be friendly to the mothers of Japanese children.

In her earlier years of living in Japan, she would invite the mother and the child to her house. By doing it this way, it became easier for their children to be friends, she said.

“One secret that I found in adapting to Japanese life was that you must approach the Japanese. They won’t naturally come to you,” she stressed.

Today, Romero de Hara wears many hats. In addition to the counseling service she offers mostly free of charge, she teaches Spanish and English in the city of Tama, sings in a band with Peruvian guitarist Manuel Miyashiro, and serves as a Spanish and English guide and interpreter at a hotel in Tokyo a few times a week.

She was born and raised in Arequipa, the second-largest town in Peru, as the seventh child of nine brothers and sisters. She went to university in Lima, and was certified as a psychologist in her home country. She worked for the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism, and for two years taught psychology at a university.

In 1993, she came to Japan for the first time under a Japan International Cooperation Agency program, and studied tourist promotion and Japanese for six months. It was at that time she first met her husband to be, who was working at a transport ministry-related organization. After she returned to Peru, they continued their long-distance relationship for a year by talking to each other on the phone, and she finally came back to Japan to marry him.

“My parents-in-law were not content at the beginning of the idea that their son will get married to a South American woman,” she said. “But after meeting me, they became happy. We all lived together for three months, and they were nice to me. If I quarreled with my husband, they would always be on my side.”

Her husband’s subsequent overseas work assignments required them to relocate to Hong Kong, Brazil and New York — until the family returned to Tokyo in 2007.

“No country is perfect. What is good about Japan is that it’s safe, and there’s discipline among the people. The food is also great. I like to think about the good things about this country,” she said.

For more information about Romero de Hara’s Spanish counseling services, you can email her at soniaromero23@msn.com.