Teenagers gathered one weekday evening at an old two-story building next to a housing project in a Yokohama suburb.

It had been nearly three years since volunteer worker Hideki Hayakawa and his staff, mainly college students, had opened the “multicultural studio,” extending support to local junior high and high school students with non-Japanese cultural backgrounds.

Kanagawa Prefecture is home to about one-third of the Indochinese who have settled in Japan since the late 1970s.

Around 20 percent of the more than 400 households in the Icho Danchi public housing complex are headed by foreigners or Japanese with overseas cultural backgrounds. These residents include Indochinese settlers, naturalized Japanese and the China-born offspring of so-called Japanese war orphans.

At Icho Junior High School, located in front of Hayakawa’s studio, the native language of 30 percent of the students is not Japanese.

The neighborhood does not feature many stores or much other evidence of the community’s multiethnic population.

Many of the students who visit the studio look no different from Japanese teens of their age, clad in similar clothes and talking into their cell phones in the same unique tone peculiar to the Japanese youth of today.

Although some of these students have only lived in Japan for a few years, they have apparently picked up spoken Japanese incredibly fast.

Despite this adaptability and efforts by public schools in the area to help international students, it is often difficult for these kids to understand classes in Japanese schools.

A 17-year-old girl who came to Japan two years ago was having trouble with her English homework. She found herself having to translate English sentences into Vietnamese before she could translate them into Japanese and write her answers in kanji.

Hayakawa always becomes increasingly anxious with the approach of the school entrance exam season in the early part of the year.

This year, Hayakawa and his staff successfully helped another Vietnamese girl pass a college entrance exam.

But even high school entrance exams represent a big hurdle for many of these children, Hayakawa said.

He estimated that fewer than 60 percent of Indochinese children in the Icho Danchi area go on to high school. “Some have already told me that they will not be taking the high school entrance exam next spring,” he said.

According to local residents, foreign children and those with non-Japanese backgrounds tend to stick together, feeling a divide between themselves and their Japanese counterparts, especially as they advance to higher grades.

The Icho Danchi residents’ council has organized an annual international festival and other community events since 1990 to help ties within the ethnically and culturally diverse community.

The bullying of foreign children at school prompted community leaders to organize mutual understanding opportunities, said Toshie Sakamoto, who serves as the council’s director.

Some Japanese residents also continue to complain about their foreign neighbors, including accusations that they hold noisy late-night parties.

Hayakawa said he would like to offer the children a place in which they can get help with their studies and feel at home and relaxed with big “brothers” and “sisters.” Indeed, some teenagers drop by the studio just to chat with Hayakawa and young staff members about school, the future and romance.

The place may also serve to shield some youngsters from temptation and danger.

Street confrontations between groups of foreign and Japanese boys sometimes develop into serious fights. Several Vietnamese residents said they are concerned with illegal drug use by some of the neighborhood’s youths.

Some of the non-Japanese children born or raised in Japan also face an identity crisis, according to Pham Dinh Son, a Vietnamese pastor.

Son left his country on a boat in 1981, braving a huge storm on his desperate voyage to Japan. “We did it just to eat and live, although we knew we only had a 5 percent chance of escaping (Vietnam) alive at best.”

But the children of people such as Son who have spent most of their lives in Japan are sometimes indifferent to the hardships their parents endured.

“They grow up in Japan as Japanese, but the society always treats them as foreigners,” Son said.

In fact, children born in Japan to Vietnamese settlers are not officially classed as Japanese or Vietnamese nationals, unless they choose to become naturalized Japanese. In practice, however, they are unofficially dealt with in Japan as “Vietnamese nationals.”

A Vietnamese woman in her 30s, who came to Japan at age 11 and is now working for a local government, said she feels a sense of separation from her younger brothers, who were mainly raised in Japan.

“I know how much hardships my parents had to overcome as refugees, and I know I have to work much harder than Japanese do because I am a foreigner,” she said. “But my younger brothers don’t understand that.”

Some children won’t even touch the Vietnamese food their parents prepare at home, Son said, adding that he regrets that many kids use their Japanese names in an effort to obscure their ethnic origins, even though they are not naturalized Japanese.

“Although they may say they are Japanese, even though their parents are Vietnamese, I do not feel they really identify themselves as Japanese from the bottom of their hearts.”

Son is now preparing a program to send Vietnamese children raised in Japan for a monthlong home-stay in Vietnam. He said he has already brought three Vietnamese seminary students to Yokohama to train them as staff for the project, which he aims to launch next year.

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