When the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit in January 1995, Taro Tamura, then 23, was quick to sense the need in foreign communities for disaster-related information.

Three days after the temblor devastated Kobe and the surrounding areas, Tamura launched a volunteer-based disaster information center for foreigners. He only planned to run it for two weeks, after which he expected things to calm down.

But the job morphed into something bigger, eventually becoming his life’s work.

Tamura, 43, is now head of the Institute for Human Diversity Japan. He has been working with foreign communities for the past 20 years to find the best ways for people of different cultural backgrounds to get along.

“I would have needed more courage if I had planned to do it for a long time in the first place,” he said of his volunteer effort in 1995. “But a lot of people were in trouble and needed help, so I felt I needed to do something — at least for some short period of time,” he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

The institute is an incorporated foundation that provides research and other services to municipalities and companies that can help them raise awareness of diversity issues. It also offers training and consulting on ways to create better social and business environments.

“I never imagined that it was going to be my job,” the Hyogo Prefecture native said.

Tamura also represents the Osaka branch of the Center for Multicultural and Information and Assistance (Tabunka Kyosei Center), a nonprofit organization he established in 1995. The center helps foreign residents by providing services like Japanese lessons and medical translation.

Tamura, who went backpacking around the world, including through Germany, Africa and South America, after graduating from high school, said his work with the foreign community can be traced back to a Filipino video shop he worked at in Osaka during his early 20s.

The video shop’s customers were mainly Filipinos living in Japan. It accepted orders by phone and distributed the videos by mail.

“As shop workers earned the trust of the customers, some of them started talking about the troubles they were facing,” he said.

About half of the female customers were married to Japanese men, and they would talk about the difficulty of getting along with their mother in laws and even issues like domestic violence, he said.

“They didn’t have anybody else to talk about their problems,” he said. “I was starting to think that this was something that shouldn’t be neglected. Then, the quake occurred.”

The store received a flood of calls from customers after the quake. As he spoke with them, he realized that important information was not getting out to the foreign community.

And with that realization, the disaster information center was born.

Volunteers he recruited began translating information from the municipalities and taking calls around the clock to help out their comrades.

The two-week plan quickly went out the window.

“After two weeks, there were calls we got that weren’t really related to the quake, on issues like unpaid wages and pregnancy . . . we began discussing these as well, although we originally started this service to give information about the quake. This was probably needed on a daily basis,” he said.

Just nine months after the quake, in October 1995, Tamura founded the Center for Multicultural Information and Assistance with about ¥20 million in donations.

Embracing the vision he called “tabunka kyosei,” meaning multicultural symbiotic, the center started offering phone-based counseling, health checkups in multiple languages and computer lessons for foreigners.

But after two years, things began to turn sour as the center ran out of money.

He recalled the group’s vision being a bit too grandiose and vague to attract donations and volunteers.

“In the case of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, we were focused on giving information to affected foreigners. Because it was very clear what we were doing, a lot of volunteers and donations came to us,” he said.

Although people weren’t opposed to the center, Tamura said its lack of a clear and attainable goal sapped their motivation to donate time and money.

Tamura was certain there was a need for the center’s services but couldn’t find the right approach.

Since the needs of foreigners differed by region, the center set up branches in Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Hiroshima to provide services more tailored to local needs. As of 2006, each branch had become an independent entity.

As Tamura continued to engage the foreign community, he began to look at the bigger picture, noting that addressing individual problems, while important, might not provide lasting solutions.

An example of this came when he tried to help a foreign person who had lost a finger while working late one night at a bento factory but could not obtain proper worker’s compensation.

Once Tamura solved a particular issue, he would receive similar calls to solve others.

“Why would foreigners have to get their fingers cut off at bento factories at unusual hours?” Tamura asked.

“Casework is important, but I was thinking that a system, which I call a ‘framework,’ to prevent such individual issues from happening, was essential.”

To help create this framework, he established the Institute for Human Diversity Japan to work with municipalities and companies on such problems.

The organization carries out research and studies on how municipalities and firms promote diversity and tries to identify any problems.

Having worked on both sides — addressing individual issues and creating the surrounding social systems to reduce them— Tamura said there is a huge gap in understanding. He said the people developing the social systems are often unfamiliar with the kinds of issues foreigners may face.

For example, he said it should be emphasized that many foreign children who attend school here don’t really understand the Japanese language.

“However, many people (including residents and municipal officials) are not actually aware of this. So these children are left outside the system,” Tamura said.

But given the aging population and declining birthrate, as well as the likelihood that Japan will have to rely on more foreigners to sustain its workforce in the future, the country must come up with a better way to educate foreign residents about the Japanese language, he said.

The current system relies heavily on volunteers, even though the teaching Japan’s language and culture to foreign residents remains vital to ensuring their smooth integration with Japanese society, he said.

In the meantime, there are many cases in both rural and metropolitan areas where foreigners are well-integrated and playing key roles in their communities, he noted, adding that this is something that Japan can be proud of.

Aside from his involvement with the foreign community, Tamura is also supporting youths who are interested in solving social problems through business.

In 2004, he started up another NPO called Edge that holds social business planning contests.

In 2011, he was appointed as an adviser to the Cabinet Office to help coordinate volunteers for the disaster-hit Tohoku region, and has also started working with the Reconstruction Agency to promote efforts to rebuild the area.

Significant events in Tamura’s life

  • 1990—Graduates high school, travels around world
  • 1995—Launches disaster information center for foreign residents after Great Hanshin Earthquake
  • 1995—Establishes Center for Multicultural Information and Assistance
  • 2004—Launches Edge social business planning contest
  • 2007—Establishes Institute for Human Diversity Japan
  • 2011—Appointed adviser to Cabinet Office for recruiting volunteers after Great East Japan Earthquake
  • 2012—Starts working for Reconstruction Agency to facilitate rebuilding efforts in Tohoku

“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .

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