|

Tokyo’s international community needs a voice — and places to call its own

To the English-speaking community of Tokyo,

Every month, AICPO — the Association of International Community Providers Organizations — meets in Tokyo, as it has for nearly 25 years, bringing together the various embassies, medical and mental health groups and other organizations who care for the welfare of the international community. Recently, we discussed the demise of the community as it once was.

When I was a kid growing up in Tokyo there was a vibrant international community centered around our beloved Tokyo American Club. I have many fond memories of curling up with a book in the library, working out daily with the “morning gang” and serving on committees to help the TAC’s members. The other pillar of the international community was the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, where we thought all the “highbrow” journalists hung out. Both always served as an unapologetic “home away from home” for the international community, with a membership and atmosphere to match.

We had four daily English-language newspapers dedicated to the international community: The Japan Times, The Daily Yomiuri, Asahi Evening News and Mainichi Daily News. If you needed to get a message to the community, in it went!

Each Friday, The Tokyo Weekender came out, lovingly put together by “Corky” Alexander, who half-raised all of us “Tokyo kids” with his advice and help, in my case helping raise part of the funds I needed to go to college.

Today, although there are of course many association magazines and online media, Tokyo’s expats are down to just one “community paper” that is owned and edited by “us” — Metropolis. It is quite amazing that much of the remaining English-language media is not owned by the English-speaking community itself.

If you go to Los Angeles, New York, London, Beijing or just about any major city overseas, you will find a vibrant, confident Japanese community.

You’re likely to find a selection of Japanese-owned and -operated newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations. These include the Seikatsu Press, Daily Sun and Japion in New York; the Rafu Shimpo and UTB TV in Los Angeles; the Japan Daily Sun in Hawaii; Eikoku News in the U.K.; TV Japan in the U.S.; JST TV in Europe — and there are many more.

You will find, for example, The Japan Club in New York, which occupies six floors of a building it owns in Manhattan. Out of approximately 3,000 members, only “several hundred” are non-Japanese — you would feel out of place if you weren’t Japanese or at least understood the language.

The sprawling Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, built with help from the local government, is in the Little Tokyo area of prime downtown real estate. Complete with space for 20 Japan-related NPOs and a theater, the building recently retired its debt with the support of American and local foundations and companies. The Japan Club of Hong Kong has given birth to a Japanese school, magazine and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, to give just a few examples.

There are no concerns about accommodating the host community at these places. In fact, while local communities help the various Japanese institutions with tax dollars and business support, they respect the right of the Japanese to have their unique places, seeing that as supporting a vibrant local community.

If you are an international company looking to set up your Asian headquarters, you look for good expatriate-run schools, hospitals, clubs and an expatriate-controlled independent media to help you make good business decisions, among other things.

Take a quick look around Asia — at Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai — and you will find dozens of expatriate media outlets, hospitals, schools and clubs for the family that give Tokyo a run for her money.

We all gathered at our beloved TAC immediately after the 9/11 attacks and the 3/11 Tohoku disaster to support each other and find out what was happening, safe in “our” place.

For a club to feel “expatriate,” it is a general rule that at least 70 percent of the membership should be expats. The founders of such clubs understood the pressures involved in an expatriate community preserving its own culture in a foreign country — crossing the 30-percent barrier, as the Japanese organizations overseas know, changes a place.

Although there were fears that the expat community would shrink in the wake of the global financial crisis and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, there has in fact been explosive growth in the English-speaking community, with an estimated 500,000 now living in the Tokyo area alone. In other words, the community surely exists to support a wider range of expatriate media and venues.

When I was a kid my dad owned a monthly English magazine. As a child, I remember visiting the various airlines, foreign-owned and -staffed companies and others to get support for the magazine, and just like the Japanese communities abroad, these firms supported the community, no questions asked.

Why does ownership matter? Last year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of The Japan Helpline, which serves the international community 24/7. For the Helpline, it is critical to be able to get important information out to the community.

We recently tried to get information into one of the media that had changed ownership. We were told that the publication’s purpose was no longer to serve the international community, but to instead to project Japan in English to the world.

Having recently had four major surgeries, the critical importance of community really struck home. Some of the first who came to wish me well were fellow members of the TAC, who constantly kept my spirits up with offers of stuff to read, information and the latest gossip.

Let’s pull together as a community and return to our once-confident roots. Here’s what we can do right now: help find sponsors for our expat-run publications; get our own dedicated satellite channel so we can receive up-to-date news on the community; help clear the debts of our remaining institutions; and recruit new international members to these institutions so we can restore their traditional balance.

To do all this, we’ll need local government, corporations and institutions to help us. Facing the 2020 Olympics, and with a wonderful new governor in Yuriko Koike, conditions couldn’t be better.

Please let us know your thoughts and ideas via either of the email addresses below.

KEN JOSEPH JR.

Tokyo

Ken Joseph Jr. is the director of The Japan Helpline, the only nationwide 24-hour English-language emergency service, at team@jhelp.com. Send your comments or submissions (addressed to local or national politicians, officials or other groups) here: community@japantimes.co.jp