National | Help Wanted?

As Japan prepares for more foreign workers, Hamamatsu serves as precedent of interculturalism

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

Step into the municipal office of this city and you’ll find pamphlets in multiple languages lining the walls, as people waiting in lines converse quietly in Portuguese.

Walk along the streets around the station and you’ll find an array of Brazilian, Filipino, and Peruvian flags fluttering in the wind among the staple izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and restaurants you would find anywhere else in Japan.

This is Hamamatsu, a city of some 800,000 people located in southwest Shizuoka Prefecture. It serves as a home for about 24,000 foreign residents from 85 countries, including 9,200 Brazilians and 3,800 Filipinos.

For now, with its large community of foreign residents making up about 3 percent of its population, Hamamatsu is still something of an anomaly in immigration-averse Japan.

But given its history of accepting foreign laborers to address labor shortages in the early 1990s, Hamamatsu is now drawing attention as the nation prepares to open its doors to more laborers from abroad with new visa types set to be introduced in April.

Almost 30 years since the first so-called Nikkei Brazilians of Japanese descent arrived under a 1990 immigration overhaul, Hamamatsu projects a complex future of interculturalism. Over the years, its community of foreign residents has matured with varying levels of integration — from well-integrated to isolated — illustrated by the lives of those in the foreign community.

“I would say that interculturalism in Hamamatsu is something of a success — we have a relatively inclusive society, which many members of the foreign community are very active in,” says Yasutomo Suzuki, who has been mayor of Hamamatsu for over 10 years and has continued to push for better integration of foreign residents during his years in office.

“Listening to the debate going on about the new immigration control legislation makes me wonder if I’ve gone back 30 years,” he adds with a chuckle.

“For us in Hamamatsu, we can’t help but feel that these discussions are too little and too late. That’s not to say that Hamamatsu doesn’t have it’s own problems to solve, but we’re already moving on to the next step of interculturalism,” he says.

Shigehiro Ikegami, who currently serves as vice president of Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture and is a long-time resident of Hamamatsu himself, agrees that interculturalism in the city has its successes.

As a professor in Shizuoka, Ikegami says he has seen an uptick in the number of students entering university who are children of long-term foreign residents. Such students are hardworking and highly talented, Ikegami says, recalling a Nikkei Brazilian student who spoke a multitude of languages including Chinese and French, and went on to work at a major global corporation, as well as a Brazilian who passed the bar exam in Japan after graduating from law school.

“When I speak to corporate executives, I tell them that there is a huge reservoir of talented, global resources right under our nose,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t children who fail to reap the benefits of a good education and environment, he added.

However, “focusing too much on the plight of such children also risks missing a very important aspect (of interculturalism)” — that there are talented young people already residing in the area as the children of long-term foreign residents.

With 30 years of accepting people from all across the globe and from all walks of life, Hamamatsu has done its fair share of work in accepting non-Japanese.

Departments focused purely on promoting interculturalism exist within the city headquarters. There are numerous nonprofit groups serving every purpose imaginable for the multitude of local communities. New residents receive a booklet, available in English and Portuguese, explaining the unspoken rules and regulations that can make daily life in Japan confusing when one doesn’t understand the language.

The tensions that often plagued neighborhoods with large swaths of foreign communities have also died down, says Joao Toshiei Masuko, a Nikkei Brazilian who came to Japan in 1989 as a businessman and now owns a large Brazilian shop and restaurant in Hamamatsu.

Relations between the Brazilian and Japanese communities have become “considerably better,” Masuko explains.

In the past, there were incidents of discrimination, he recalled. A shopkeeper once barred a Brazilian woman from entering the shop, leading to a legal dispute. Japanese individuals used to keep their distance from foreign residents when walking down the street.

But that sort of discrimination is a thing of the past, Masuko says.

“Time passed, and the Brazilians got used to life here too. … After living for so many years here, the Brazilians live just like the Japanese,” he says.

However, some remnants of the issues from the days when tensions were high are still deeply entrenched in Hamamatsu, exacerbated by the emergence of new foreign communities, stubbornly manifesting themselves in some corners of society.

“Some problems (that are reported through resident associations) have gotten better thanks to the passage of time, but on the flip side, that also means that the issue has been neglected,” says Marie Matsuoka, general manager and coordinator at the Hamamatsu Foundation for International Communication and Exchange, or HICE, which provides a variety of education, consultation, and intercultural exchange services to the local foreign community.

“We’ve come full circle, and there are some aspects that just haven’t improved. The foreign community has been part of Hamamatsu’s landscape for 30 years, but we still get the same complaints now as we did three decades ago,” she explains.

Over the years, she has consistently received complaints about noise and littering from resident associations, a problem that may stem from a number of factors, such as resident associations not having the time to focus on community building and a failure by authorities to find more permanent solutions.

Issues are not just limited to residential complaints, however. In some cases, foreign residents run the risk of isolating themselves from Japanese society, preventing them from obtaining necessary information that, at times, could be life-changing.

According to Yoshikazu Matsumoto, vice chairman of the nonprofit organization Filipino Nagkaisa, which provides Japanese lessons and consultation services to residents from the Phillipines, the Filipino community in Hamamatsu is independent — but not necessarily in a good way.

“The majority of the community can function independently without much contact with Japanese society because they rely on certain individuals, such as children who are fluent in Japanese or people in leadership positions within the community” to serve as a go-between, he explains.

“My concern is that a lot of Filipinos start working without graduating high school, at about the age of 16. They haven’t gone through higher education, they work unstable jobs as temp workers, and their pay is low. If these young workers grow older, have children, and end up providing that kind of lifestyle to their children, that may only isolate the community further,” he says.

Filipino Nagkaisa is the biggest Filipino-oriented organization in Hamamatsu — yet they are in touch with only about 500 of the some 3,800 Filipino residents of the city.

Part of the cause, and perhaps a result, of such isolation is lack of basic information, making it harder for them to realize that they are overpaying their taxes, for example, or being paid less than the Japanese average for their work.

It doesn’t help that in some cases, such communities live with two standards in mind — how things are in Japan compared with how things are back in their home country.

“They live with two standards — a Filipino and a Japanese one. … These people might be significantly underpaid compared with their Japanese counterparts, but that pay would still be high compared to the Filipino standard. That means it’s that much harder for them to be self-aware of the plight they’re in,” he adds.

Filipino residents make up the second-largest foreign community in Hamamatsu after the Brazilian community. In some respects, the challenges the Filipino community faces are similar to those faced by the Brazilian community years prior.

Indeed, some people from the Brazilian community have experienced the isolation and lack of information that Matsumoto feels is a prevalent problem in the Filipino community.

“All four of my older siblings didn’t go to high school and worked in factories straight out of middle school,” explains Junko Tamashiro, a Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture student and third-generation Nikkei Brazilian who volunteers at Colors, a nonprofit that conducts workshops for young, non-Japanese students in Hamamatsu.

“I couldn’t see myself graduating university and getting a proper job when I was younger, and I think that lack of ambition stems from not having a role model like that in my life,” she continues.

“Some people give up on going to college because they don’t get the information they need on scholarships and financial aid,” says Sayuri Miura, a student at Shizuoka University of Arts and Culture who also volunteers at Colors, speaking of the students she mentors through the workshops at Colors.

Still, small-scale changes are trickling into the lives of foreign residents, opening new doors to a world of possibilities they hadn’t realized were available.

For example, in Tamashiro’s case, her parent’s values changed over time. With her eldest brother, who is 16 years older, her parents didn’t offer much of a choice after graduating from junior high school apart from working at a factory. However, by the time Tamashiro was in high school, her parents wanted her to pursue higher education.

Tamashiro and Miura represent exactly the kind of change that Suzuki, the mayor of Hamamatsu, sees as the future of the city.

“Now that the foreign residents have for the most part settled into life in Hamamatsu, and integration is under way, a new generation of talented children with non-Japanese backgrounds is beginning to thrive,” says Suzuki.

“These people have great potential, and are becoming the lifeblood of our city. Our new strategy is to increase the number of people who can contribute to various aspects of life in our city,” he adds.

“Of course, we don’t expect everyone to be a stellar member of society … but in the grand scheme of things, we want to move forward from interculturalism as an issue to be resolved, to interculturalism as a positive force of energy for the city.”

Matsuoka, the coordinator at HICE, agrees that ensuring as many foreign residents can actively participate in social life in Hamamatsu is a high priority at HICE as well.

“I do hope that foreign residents can become active players in the Hamamatsu scene, and I also believe that it is our responsibility, as the host country, to create a society that will accept and encourage civil participation from foreign individuals too,” she says.

“That being said, when it comes to accepting diversity, it’s common for diversity in terms of being exceptionally talented or multilingual to take the spotlight,” she adds. “But real diversity isn’t just about that — it’s about having a whole variety of unique experiences. We’re all different as individuals, so it’s very important to be accepting of those differences.”

This is part of a year-long series examining Japan’s immigration policy as the nation prepares to open its gates to an increasing number of foreign workers from April.