Foreign residents in Japan may be at a disadvantage in some ways, but they are by no means powerless nor on their own, says Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Asian People’s Friendship Society (APFS).

In a recently launched program series, the organization is nurturing a new group of volunteers it calls “foreign community leaders” who will assist fellow non-Japanese trying to navigate life amid a different and foreign culture.

“Long-term foreign residents have incredible know-how on how to get by in their everyday lives in Japan,” says Jotaro Kato, the head of APFS. “I want people to know that there are foreigners out there who can speak perfect Japanese” and who can provide guidance if needed.

Targeting long-term foreign residents with a high level of proficiency in the Japanese language, the 30-year-old organization is spearheading the project to groom such veterans so they can help newcomers overcome a variety of everyday obstacles, such as dealing with language barriers, cultural differences and visa conundrums.

For its part, APFS has organized a series of lectures and workshops that are currently taking place every other Saturday in a community hall in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, in which experts from many different fields discuss topics important to foreign residents. The issues covered include visa problems, labor laws, the welfare system and translation problems.

The volunteers comprise a variety of nationalities, including Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians and Nepalese, with many having lived in Japan for more than 10 years, according to Kato. Each class, which typically spans about two hours, is conducted in Japanese and is free of charge.

Among the participants in these classes is 35-year-old Dhishan Niraula, who hails from Nepal. He said he volunteered because he thought it was his mission to help his compatriots amid a recent spike in the Nepalese population in Japan.

“I’m their sempai (senior),” said Niraula, who works for a manufacturing company and has lived in Japan for 11 years. “So I think I have an obligation to support them.”

Another participant, Nepalese company employee Marina Rai, 24, said she has noticed that many Japanese tend to assume only they can offer insight, and thus assistance, into navigating the culture and daily life in Japan.

“Many Japanese people appear to think that they are somehow ‘above’ foreigners and that it’s their job to help,” said Rai, who has lived in Japan about 15 years.

“But I’ve realized some people in my Nepalese community actually speak pretty decent Japanese and are very talented. So it doesn’t always have to be the Japanese who assume the role of supporter. We can be supporters, too,” she said.

Japan has witnessed a surge in foreign residents in recent years, including exchange students and technical interns. Their number totaled a record 2.3 million as of last June, with a marked rise in the number of Vietnamese and Nepalese nationals, according to the Justice Ministry.

As Japan braces for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Kato of APFS predicts the numbers will further grow to the point where “Japanese people alone can hardly handle the influx.”

“We need to create a viable system to accommodate them before it’s too late,” he said.

The program, which debuted in September with a focus on lectures, has recently entered the latter half of its curriculum, with a greater emphasis now placed on workshops and group discussions.

This past Saturday, for example, about 10 participants taking part in a workshop held at Itabashi Green Hall studied translation techniques — the main theme for the day — where they parsed, paraphrased and summarized Japanese text under the guidance of a professional interpreter.

Among the participants taking advantage of the service is freelance translator and editor Emma Ota.

Ota, who originally came to Japan as a student from Britain about 10 years ago, said she found herself in unexpected predicaments in the early days of her stay in Japan.

In her view, one of the most common pitfalls is “assuming things are similar to your own country but then finding out it’s a very different system.”

“I think, in particular, the medical system is so different from the U.K.,” she said. “So trying to get my head around how that works and trying to find out what’s the difference between all these different hospitals and how much everything is going to cost and who to go to when I have a particular problem … it was sometimes quite difficult.”

But after attending the series of lectures, Ota, 33, said she has already learned a lot.

Particularly thought-provoking, she said, was a lecture on Japanese school education, which taught the class that the government essentially discriminates against foreign pupils by not making their enrollment compulsory, but merely “allowing” them to go to public school on a voluntary basis.

“This is the root of many problems, I think,” she said.

Kato says those interested in this program are welcome to join its remaining five workshops. Further details are available at apfs.jp/event20160801_3460.php.

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