KOBE — The Radio FM YY studio looks like a miniature version of Kobe and the city’s more than 43,000 foreign nationals from about 120 countries.
“So, how do people in Latin America spend their holidays?” asks a DJ in Spanish in one recording booth, while in the booth next door a DJ welcomes a Thai dancer in Japanese and tells him to introduce himself through simultaneous interpretation.
The community radio station, which broadcasts music, news and other programs in 10 languages, is in a modern-looking church building near the waterfront in Nagata Ward that bears little resemblance to how the area looked after a magnitude 7.3 temblor hit the Hanshin region on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995.
The site was an emergency shelter for scores of foreigners, especially Vietnamese living in the area, after the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit, leaving more than 6,000 people dead and thousands injured and forced into hardship.
The disaster was made worse for some foreigners because they couldn’t understand Japanese.
Roxana Oshiro, coordinator of the group Comunidad Latina de Hyogo (Hyogo Latin Community) and an on-air celebrity for Radio FM YY’s Japanese-Spanish program “Salsa Latina,” can still recall vividly what it was like 15 years ago.
No one in her family was hurt in the quake, but when they evacuated from their damaged apartment they saw people running in the streets and heard a police car making what appeared to be an emergency announcement — but they couldn’t understand it.
Oshiro, a Japanese-Peruvian, came to Japan with her husband in 1991 while she was in her early 20s, and their Japanese comprehension was still limited. The only word they picked up in the announcement was “tsunami,” and it left them in almost a panic.
“We didn’t know what to do. The only thing we could do was to follow everyone around us, blindly,” Oshiro says in now-fluent Japanese, recalling the experience that eventually led her to join the radio station.
“It makes a whole lot of difference to have (a radio program) in your own language, you know,” she says.
Her experience was not an uncommon one at the time. The language barrier effectively prevented non-Japanese speakers from accessing aid information. It also partially contributed to the rise in groundless rumors that foreigners were setting fires or assaulting Japanese.
That was when two radio stations emerged, partially as a defense step. One was started by Koreans and the other by volunteers helping Vietnamese. The two soon united and became Radio FM YY.
The stations began airing programs to help non-Japanese speakers get proper information about aid, and people flocked to station members to ask for details on how to get help and make requests for the kind of information they wanted broadcast.
By July 1995, Radio FM YY was airing programs in Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, English, Tagalog and Japanese. Content gradually shifted from disaster information to cross-cultural material like music and more languages were added over the years.
Today, more than 100 volunteers of different nationalities are involved in running the station, which is financed by donations as well as through translation and interpretation work by its staff.
The station has also served as an agent to bring local people, including foreigners and other minorities, closer because they have to work together frequently to prepare the programs.
“There is great significance in that community radio bridged different people who previously had no ties and has continued to be an agent for promoting cross-cultural communications after all these years,” says Junichi Hibino, Radio FM YY director.
Hibino came to Kobe as a volunteer after seeing on TV a Vietnamese mother and child at an emergency shelter who could not respond to a reporter’s questions. He decided he wanted to help.
Through his work, the 47-year-old says he witnessed many moments of reconciliation between Koreans or Vietnamese with Japanese after talking to each other directly. He believes community radio can further promote interaction among people with different backgrounds.
But Radio FM YY remains a “special” station in Japan, Hibino laments, because not many others like it have emerged. He blames a lack of public assistance and systematic support.
The plight of a station in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, a city like Kobe with a large foreign population, is symbolic of the problems.
Hibino says the station had been considering establishing multilingual, cross-cultural programs but hadn’t started any until a major earthquake hit the prefecture in 2004. “The city faced the same problems we faced,” he says.
Radio FM YY supported the radio service by providing content it translated in multiple languages and was honored for its help. But the experience left Hibino almost furious as it showed that the necessity of such multilingual community radio wasn’t understood by people even after the Kobe quake.
“It would be sad if it requires another earthquake for a radio station like ours to emerge,” he says.
Radio FM YY has extended its support to other disaster-hit locations, including Indonesia, Peru and Taiwan, providing broadcasting equipment bought with donations and sharing knowledge on how to run a community radio station and the role it should play.
Community stations play crucial roles during disasters, and they are also a key to tuning into the voices of minorities and delivering them to other listeners.
The number of foreign nationals in Kobe dropped by more than 1,000 in the year after the 1995 quake, from 44,205 to 42,947, but was back up to the previous level by 2002.
Noting the rise in the number of immigrants, Hibino cautions that troubles between different foreign nationalities will continue to rise, and while a support system has been organized after the quake, such “support will be just support.”
“We are now at a state to create a place that allows everyone to share their cultures and live their lives without hesitation,” Hibino says.