The arrest of a Chinese woman in Friday’s fatal stabbing of two children she routinely drove to kindergarten in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture, has cast a light on the problems foreigners face in trying to fit into Japanese society.
Zheng Yongshan, 34, whose 5-year-old daughter attended kindergarten with the two victims, reportedly told investigators her daughter did not fit in well with other children. Media reports also quoted an acquaintance who said Zheng felt left out by the mothers of the other children.
Experts have been quick to attribute Zheng’s actions to paranoia stemming from insecurity about not being able to make friends.
But citizens’ groups that offer support to foreign mothers say the tragedy shows how important it is to communicate with such mothers and to help them fit into society.
“I think (Zheng) was influenced by the notion that she was being left out, and projected that onto her child,” said Akira Sakuta, a visiting professor at Seigakuin University who specializes in criminal psychology.
Sakuta said mothers tend to have a sense of oneness with their children, and Zheng must have thought her daughter, like her, was also not getting along well with others.
Poor communications between non-Japanese and Japanese can exacerbate feelings of isolation.
Zheng could not join a group of mothers who had exchanged e-mail messages on their cell phones, though she had wished to do so, Kyodo News agency reported Monday, quoting police sources.
Cell phones have become an indispensable communications tool for Japanese mothers. Many of them exchange e-mails to arrange everything from dinner menus to where their kids play after they return from kindergarten.
“Many foreign mothers (in Japan) raise their children with a sense of isolation and anxiety,” said Midori Ito, who heads Kansai Lifeline, a group in Osaka that provides telephone counseling, mainly for people from Taiwan and China.
Ito, who was born in Taiwan and came to Japan in 1977 when she married a Japanese, became a citizen in 1978.
A mother of two, she set up a group to support non-Japanese mothers, mostly from China.
“They are concerned about child-rearing, about being left out and whether their children are being bullied” at school, Ito said.
“Foreign mothers who have problems are probably sending a message to the people around them, so it is important to (acknowledge) their anxieties at home and within the community,” she said.
Although there are some people willing to help foreign mothers, many Japanese are reluctant because they do not know what to do, Ito said.
Shiga officials point out that there is no official network to assist Chinese nationals residing in the prefecture.
“It’s easy for Chinese residents to fall through the cracks here,” said Nobuko Koda, who works for a foreign residents’ hotline run by the Shiga Intercultural Association for Globalization, a foundation affiliated with the prefectural government.
The hotline is one of the few in the prefecture with a Chinese-speaking staff member.
The Brazilian community has a strong network throughout Shiga Prefecture, but a Chinese mother could become isolated, Koda said.
“The questions we get from Chinese mothers are questions any new Japanese mother might have,” Koda added. Worries can range from problems with in-laws, to getting the husband to listen, to where to buy certain foods, she said.
“Some of the questions make me wonder: Isn’t there anyone there to ask them, ‘How are you doing?’ ” she said.
The overwhelming majority of foreign residents living in Shiga Prefecture are from South America. There were 3,969 registered foreign residents living in Nagahama, for example, at the end of December, with 80 percent hailing from South America — 2,580 from Brazil and 604 from Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. There were 211 Chinese residents, according to prefectural statistics.
Shiga adopted programs in 2002 “to promote internationalization” by 2010, and to “aim for the coexistence of various cultures.”
The focus remains on Brazilian residents, however.
A few minutes’ drive from Nagahama, in the city of Hikone, Rina Inano, a teacher at the privately run Futaba Nursery School, remembered how teachers took Portuguese classes when the first foreign child — from Brazil — enrolled a few years ago.
“We would greet the child and the parents in Portuguese,” she said. “That was the first step to building trust.”
The teachers spoke Japanese with Portuguese mixed in, and would read school notices aloud to the parents, translating for them when necessary.
“I can see how teachers might assume everything was OK if there was not much of a language problem,” Inano said.
Koda said there are support networks for Chinese residents. “They’re just often hard to find through the city office alone,” she said.
One such informal network exists just blocks from the kindergarten the slain children attended. At Junko Yoshii’s Japanese-language school, about a dozen Chinese mothers are taking Japanese lessons this winter.
After class, the students take the opportunity to talk and exchange information. “I don’t think she knew about this place,” Yoshii said. “If she had, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
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