• Kyodo

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More than 200 foreign residents are members of volunteer fire corps in Japan, a survey has found, providing a much-needed boost as overall membership dwindles due to the aging population and low birthrate.

While participation of foreign residents helps fire corps offer services in multiple languages, challenges remain due to a government policy that requires public servants, including fire corps volunteers, to be Japanese citizens in principle.

Among 1,613 municipal governments surveyed, 147, or 9 percent, said they have foreign fire corps volunteers, bringing the number of such volunteers to 203.

Over 1,100 municipalities said they do not have foreign fire corps volunteers at the moment but would welcome their participation.

On the other hand, 233 municipalities said they do not allow foreign residents to join fire brigades.

Bhushan Hastak, a 29-year-old Indian who runs a curry restaurant, joined a local fire corps in the town of Misato in Miyagi Prefecture as its youngest member. The brigade has about 50 volunteers.

He took part in an operation in March to extinguish fire on a tractor and said he was happy that the members trusted him and let him join.

Yoshio Okano, the 62-year-old chief of the brigade, hailed his participation, saying, “We were constantly short of workers as the number of young people declined.”

In the city of Kusatsu in Shiga Prefecture, a fire brigade comprised of nine foreign residents, including members from China, Vietnam and South Korea, was formed in September last year.

The group are giving other foreign members of the community training on evacuation and other disaster responses, including the use of fire extinguishers.

Meanwhile, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency says it is unaware of the number of foreign fire corps volunteers. Regarding foreigners’ assignments, it only answered vaguely that it is necessary to properly deal with the matter, taking into consideration basic principles about public servants and the authority of fire corps members.

Members of fire brigades are considered part-time local public servants. They usually have other regular jobs but engage in rescue or evacuation efforts on a part-time basis in case of fire or other disaster.

The government has held the view that Japanese nationality is required to become a public servant in principle, but an increasing number of municipal governments have abolished such requirements.

Ichizo Goto, a teacher at Tohoku Fukushi University who is known for his extensive knowledge on the issue, said foreign fire corps volunteers can play important roles, such as providing interpretation, in disaster situations.

“When there are so many (foreign residents working as) fire corps volunteers, it is necessary that the state back them up legally,” he said.

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