Long journey to safe harbor in an unpredictable world

Former 'boat person' helps fellow refugees from Vietnam adjust to new life in Japan


Knowing Japanese troops had caused the deaths of her father’s parents and siblings in World War II, Japan was about the last place Ha Thi Thanh Nga expected to end up. Today — some 30 years after arriving here as a refugee — Nga, 49, is helping other compatriots make lives for themselves here.

In a recent interview at the Takatori Catholic Church Community Center in Kobe’s Nagata Ward, where conversations held in Portuguese, Chinese and Vietnamese mingled with the cries of toddlers at play, Nga talked about her early life and how she became head of an NGO for Vietnamese residents, Vietnam in Kobe.

Nga was born in 1961 in Ben Tre, a small city on the Mekong Delta in what was then South Vietnam. Although in the south, the city reputedly harbored North Vietnamese soldiers and sympathizers, making it a target for U.S. and South Vietnamese military operations (the notorious quote attributed to a U.S. army commander, “We had to destroy the town in order to save it,” reportedly referred to the near-daily bombing runs inflicted upon Ben Tre).

She was the fifth of nine children; her father was a shopkeeper selling straw hats and other woven goods. Nga grew up surrounded by near-daily warfare: “We slept in bomb shelters every night until the war ended when I was 14. We walked, worked, and lived with war all around us. During the day the Viet Cong soldiers would hide but they’d emerge to fight at night. In the morning my siblings and I would go to the site where the mangled bodies of the Viet Cong who had been killed during the night would be publicly displayed. Now I can understand the horror of war, but as a child it seemed quite normal.”

Life changed dramatically when North Vietnam defeated the South and the war ended in 1975. “My family lost its assets due to collectivization and life became difficult. We couldn’t afford tuition, so I left school in my first year of high school and helped out at my father’s shop, along with my brothers and sisters,” Nga said. “My father thought that, as Catholics and merchants, our family had no future in Vietnam, so he began planning to send us children overseas.”

Nga’s father eventually arranged for six of his children to escape Vietnam by boat, on three different occasions. To improve their chances for a safe journey he tried to find boat owners who were escaping themselves and persuaded them to take his children aboard.

Nga explained: “I left Ban Tre late one night in 1981 on a boat with 52 passengers, mainly the boat owner’s relatives. I was 19 at the time. We sailed for three days until we were picked up by a Philippine freighter, the Mindanao, that was bound for Japan with a cargo of lumber. We disembarked in Shikoku, then were transferred to a Red Cross refugee camp in Nagasaki.”

Beginning in the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, most from the south or ethnic Chinese, piled into rickety boats and set off to sea. Most were picked up by freighters plying nearby sea lanes and transported to refugee camps in the region, but many of the “boat people” fell victim to storms, thirst, drowning or piracy.

To prevent further suffering, by the late 1970s several OECD nations agreed to accept large numbers of Indochinese refugees for resettlement. To mute international criticism of its parsimonious refusal to take in Indochinese, Japan reluctantly agreed to accept 500 Indochinese refugees a year from 1978. But there was a hitch, according to Nga: “Because of Japan’s terrible wartime image, no refugees wanted to come here. By 1981, when I arrived, only 70 refugees had chosen to resettle in Japan.

“We had to stay in Nagasaki until we decided to either settle in Japan or apply for resettlement in another country. My father advised me ‘Death is better than staying in Japan,’ but the Japanese government, worried about its reputation, pressed us to resettle here and I had no choice but to agree.”

She stayed 18 months in Nagasaki, until 1983, during which time she married a fellow refugee who had been on the same boat. After three months studying Japanese in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, she and her husband spent six months in Shikoku, where he had found a job, but, feeling isolated and unable to speak the language, they decided to resettle in central Kobe in 1984. “There were a few Vietnamese here in those days and you could find Vietnamese food in Chinatown, so it was an easier place for us to live.”

Nga raised the oldest of her five children while working at a Kobe shoe factory, but her world was again shaken on Jan. 17, 1995, when the Great Hanshin Earthquake sent her and her family fleeing from their apartment building.

“We had never experienced a major quake, so we didn’t know what to do,” she recalled. “My youngest child was only 2 at the time, and the oldest was 11. We first fled to our local Catholic church, then we were taken to the junior high school, where we stayed for three months until our apartment building was made livable again. We had lost all of our belongings, but at least we were all safe.”

At first all the evacuees stayed in the school’s gymnasium, but cultural differences soon surfaced between the Japanese and Vietnamese and the Vietnamese families were placed in a classroom by themselves. Said Ng, “I soon realized there were some major differences in Vietnamese and Japanese ways. On the first day, for example, we had nothing to eat until evening and the children were crying, so we began cooking on an outdoor stove, which angered the Japanese. The Japanese thought that if you wait, the government will come to your aid, but as Vietnamese who had experienced war we had learned not to expect much from the government and to do things for ourselves.

“We were so happy just to be alive that day that we were laughing with joy, but the Japanese found our behavior disrespectful for the many who had died. In Vietnam, though, even if you lose everything you can always rebuild your lives. I could understand the pain the Japanese felt, but if you have no energy you can’t overcome tragedy.”

The Japanese evacuees complained about noisy children and food odors, while the Vietnamese felt lost and ignored due to the lack of instructions or information available in their language. “We couldn’t understand official terminology or how the bureaucracy worked, how to secure assistance for housing or other procedures.”

Nga began helping to translate documents from the evacuation center’s office into Vietnamese. She worked with local bureaucrats and volunteers to overcome mutual suspicions and misunderstandings.

After three months she and her family returned home but her shoe factory remained closed, so Nga decided to spend some time volunteering. “I thought that perhaps I could be of use to others who needed help. Volunteering soon became my ‘ikigai’ (reason for living).”

From 1997 she began working four days a week for an NGO that assisted Vietnamese residents in Kobe. The group reorganized as NGO Vietnam in Kobe in 2001, with Nga as their director. The group is housed in the Takatori Community Center, a complex of rooms on two floors of the Takatori Catholic Church that includes offices of several other nonprofit groups, a small translation agency, a community radio and leisure facilities for Kobe’s diverse foreign community.

Ng said that about 70 percent of the 1,434 Vietnamese in Kobe as of April this year originally came to Japan as refugees, but many remained handicapped by poor Japanese language skills. She handles telephone and walk-in consultation for problems ranging from late wages and lack of health insurance coverage to bicultural marital woes.

“Sometimes I’m even called to interpret for the Vietnamese spouse during husband-and-wife spats,” she added, with a smile. Nga and her group frequently lead Vietnamese cooking classes and seminars on Vietnamese culture for Japanese. She is also on city and prefectural advisory boards on issues affecting foreign residents.

“Of course the Great Hanshin Earthquake was a terrible experience, but one positive result was a real improvement in the local government’s attitudes toward foreign residents and the handicapped,” she said. “There had always been a foreign community in Kobe but the government had had very little awareness of our needs. Today they translate documents into other languages, and they now understand that there are many ways of thinking and acting.”

“I try to tell Japanese to not only see foreign cultures as strange or exotic, but to try to understand why they do things differently rather than just harbor preconceptions or draw lines between us. They don’t have to like foreign customs but there may be something they can learn from them.”

NGO Vietnam in Kobe can be reached at 078-736-2987 or ngoviet@.tcc117.org. For more information, see www.tcc117.org/ngovt.