National | Regional Voices: Hokkaido

Muroran community spot fosters international diversity in Hokkaido

Hokkaido Shimbun

A community space in Muroran, Hokkaido, is connecting residents with others on the island who hail from countries as diverse as Thailand, Canada, South Korea and the United States.

Once a month, they gather to take part in a so-called English Night where they can interact with English teachers working at public schools in Muroran and neighboring Noboribetsu, as well as international students at the Muroran Institute of Technology.

The group, which has about 20 members, meets at the community space in an area named Takasagocho. Named Tanne, the space can be found just past the Katatsumuri confectionery shop as you head toward the institute.

Each English Night session starts at around 7 p.m. and lasts for about two hours, during which the participants discuss topics in English or play spelling games or charades while indulging their sweet tooth.

Like being abroad

The program was launched in the summer of 2014, aimed at middle school students and older children, as well as adults.

For ¥500 per session, participants can take part in events held to celebrate occasions such as Halloween or Christmas.

“Language games work more smoothly when they’re devised by native English speakers, so we’ve been asking the teachers from Muroran to take turns and give lessons,” said Kenichi Kato, 24, a Muroran Institute of Technology graduate who took over the group’s operations in October.

Kato said feedback from the participants is essential in devising the content of the English sessions to make the gatherings at Tanne enjoyable.

“I just want these gatherings to serve as a cultural exchange opportunity for all people regardless of their skills, age or nationality,” Kato added.

Kato took over the role from Motoaki Sato, 37, who previously worked in Muroran as a translator and interpreter and initially kicked off the English Nights project.

“I wanted to create a place where (residents) could learn conversational English in Muroran,” Sato said. He said he rented Tanne to hold the lessons and advertised the events on Facebook with a note explaining that using Japanese would be forbidden during the English classes.

Sato, who now lives in the United States, where he sells machinery parts and equipment, said he thinks back on the initiative as “an overseas experience without any need to leave Muroran.”

Nobuko Kawamura, 56, Tanne’s manager, was involved in setting up the community space. She says she has leased it out for book-reading events for children, nutrition events and other conferences.

Tanne initially opened to hold a charity event in the district to support residents affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The idea was to provide continuous help for the community, particularly in times when people are struck by disasters they don’t tend to think about and thus fail to prepare for.

Diverse projects

At present, the facility is used mainly for regular events such as the English Nights, but students from Muroran Institute of Technology also rent it for cultural or extracurricular activities.

Kawamura is also open to other projects and welcomes people who are interested in leasing the space to organize gatherings there. She called the facility Tanne, meaning seed, in the hope it would serve as a place where community bonds strengthen, just like plants grown from seeds planted close together.

Tanne has suffered from staffing shortages, but Kawamura said she hopes to solve that difficulty and transform Tanne into an event space that will entertain the community on a daily basis.

This section features topics and issues from Hokkaido covered by the Hokkaido Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on Sept. 27.

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