NPO brought Tohoku’s foreigners together

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

A teacher congratulates a Philippine student for acing a Japanese-language test at a local community hall. Her instructor, Kanae Sato, is from Taiwan, and like most of the residents of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, both saw their homes destroyed by tsunami two years ago.

“Studying Japanese is becoming fun,” the student, 29, who asked not to be named, said while taking a lunch break with a Chinese classmate. Expressing determination to continue living in the disaster-struck city, she added, “My three children speak Japanese, so I need to work on it as well.”

For Yoshinobu Chiba, whose nonprofit group Gaikokujin Hisaisha Shien Center (Center for Aiding Foreign Nationals Affected by Disaster) organized the course, the classes are about more than simply teaching Japanese. They’re about strengthening the foreign community as a whole.

“I felt the need to create a network among foreign nationals in Miyagi. There’s also the need to support and train them so they can find jobs,” Chiba, 55, explained.

According to government statistics, more than 75,000 foreign nationals were living in officially designated disaster zones as of March 2011. Of those, 782 were residing in Ishinomaki, where the tsunami caused catastrophic damage.

“There were reports that foreigners in Tohoku fled Japan after 3/11, but that isn’t really the case,” he said. “Despite the quake and tsunami disasters and the aftermath, there are foreign nationals who are here to stay and willing to become members of the community.”

Foreign nationals began arriving in Tohoku nearly 30 years ago, when local farmers, notably in the towns of Asahi and Okura in Yamagata Prefecture, started marrying Filipino women to stem the rapid depopulation in rural areas.

Many chose to live independently and weren’t really part of the local community. Since they weren’t fluent in Japanese and were living in separate clusters, Tohoku’s foreigners — along with children and the elderly — were deemed among Japan’s “most vulnerable groups in times of disaster.”

Not long after the waves receded on March 11, 2011, Chiba and three of his employees started checking up on foreign residents in Miyagi, meeting more than 1,000 and surveying over 90 by mail.

After racking up tens of thousands of kilometers driving around Miyagi, what they found astounded them.

In the prefecture’s devastated coastal areas, many foreign nationals had no homes, jobs or access to information. One South Korean woman was living day to day, with only ¥700 in her pocket and sleeping at friends’ houses. A Thai national who had divorced her husband after the tsunami was living in extreme poverty until she finally landed a job at a local fish-processing factory.

In most cases, such women had married older men who were having difficulty finding new jobs in the wake of the disasters. In other cases, foreign mothers were suddenly faced with the prospect of working while raising children on their own because welfare insurance payouts expired two years after the disasters, Chiba said. But not all foreigners in the region have the resources or good fortune to get decent jobs, he said.

And for some, the trauma inflicted by the tsunami hasn’t yet receded. Another South Korean, who wished to remain anonymous, managed to escape the waves in 2011 but later learned that 74 students at nearby Okawa Elementary School had been swept away and killed.

The woman, 43, arrived in Ishinomaki seven years ago to marry a local Japanese. After spending weeks in a shelter, her family moved into temporary housing in the Oppagawa district. She now spends her days making Jizo deities out of yarn.

“I make each Jizo thinking of the deceased children. Whenever I think of the tsunami, I still can’t sleep well,” she said.

Starting to move forward is a pressing matter for the woman as her son will begin elementary school in April. Her husband is a public works contractor, but what lies in store for the family remains unclear.

Their two-room shelter can’t be a long-term home since they lack proper heating and privacy. And drying laundry requires that she hang it up in one of the cramped rooms. But the chances of being approved for public housing aren’t good either because the accommodations are in short supply.

“There are times when I’ve pondered returning to South Korea,” she admitted. “But whenever I feel that way, I try to think of the even worse days I spent in shelters,” she said, recalling the virtually nonexistent partitions separating the different families and the absence of space for her son to play in.

But for some foreign communities, March 11 became a rare opportunity to unite. Of the 75,000 foreign nationals in the disaster zone at the time, 28,000 were Chinese. Unlike the large Korean and Filipino communities that gather at churches on Sundays, Tohoku’s Chinese hadn’t established ties yet.

“There wasn’t a network among us. After the March 2011 disasters we felt that needed to be changed,” said Aki Sakuma, who arrived from China in 1993 and settled in Ishinomaki.

Although institutions and groups exist to support overseas students and trainees, those who do not fit into these two categories badly needed some kind of hub to “exchange information and help each other, especially in times of emergency,” she said.

Sakuma, 53, was among the Chinese and Chinese-Japanese residents who launched a new group in Miyagi to fill that void. The group has 50 members so far, and more than 80 got together in February to celebrate Chinese New Year with dumplings and dances.

As for the future of Chinese nationals in Tohoku, Sakuma said she hopes her compatriots will actively participate in the recovery effort to become more integrated with the broader regional community.

“Media reported that many foreigners fled Japan after the quake, and Japanese people probably thought that many of us would leave this land, too, in times of trouble,” she said. “But we are all determined to continue living in Japan as a part of society.”

According to Chiba of the NPO, Ishinomaki’s foreign population has shrunk from 782 before 3/11 to 513 as of April 2012, a decline of 34 percent. Most of those who left were Chinese trainees in the city’s fish-processing plants, he said, explaining that no mass departure took place.

Of the 92 foreigners his NPO surveyed, 77 said they wished to remain in Japan and 67 said they would like to stay in Ishinomaki or remain in the city, providing they could make a living.

“They stayed. They are a part of the rebuilding effort. And we Japanese need their help as well, considering the demand for labor in the region, especially home helpers,” Chiba said.

The need to cooperate and help one another transcended nationality in Ishinomaki. No prejudice was shown toward foreigners seeking refuge after the tsunami, and everyone worked hand in hand, Chiba said.

“We all got along well. Now is the time to build on that and figure out how local residents and foreign nationals can live side by side to ensure the future of the city,” he said.

The Gaikokujin Hisaisha Shien Center holds courses for learning Japanese, computers and home helper skills every Wednesday and occasionally on Sundays. Those interested should call 022-297-1033 for more information.