In Minato City, 78 embassies and 22,000 foreign residents from about 120 countries form a diverse international community. This month's Close UP features Minato International Association, which has been conducting various international activities to promote friendship exchange support foreign residents in the city. The association regularly offers two language programs, "Let's Chat in Japanese" and "Let's Rediscover Japan," both of which aim to provide a fun opportunity for both Japanese and foreigners to enjoy conversations. The association also hosts unique language programs for foreign residents who want to find a place to try out their Japanese conversation skills in a casual atmosphere. Masahiro Ohtomo, Director of the association, and Naoko Shiratori, coordinator of the Japanese Conversation Partner program, told us about the association's activities.
Minato International Association
Masahiro Ohtomo
Director of Minato International Association
Mr. Ohtomo: We plan and offer various fun activities to promote the exchange of global friendship in the community. Promoting the friendship exchange is the first step toward achieving better communications and mutual understanding between different cultures. The key here is that we don't plan and offer events as a mere "get-together party." Instead, our hope is that these exchange programs eventually motivate both Japanese and foreign residents to become more helpful and supportive to each other in the community life. When we were first established, our programs were mostly friendship exchange activities. We now focus both on the exchange programs and living support for foreign residents.
Mr. Ohtomo: We offer an entry-level course, Japanese for Beginners. For those who want to learn Japanese in a fun setting, we have a program called Let's Chat in Japanese, which is a themed conversational group. At LCJ, participants can brush up practical spoken Japanese while talking freely with other participants including Japanese native speakers about a wide variety of topics such as tsuyu (rainy season), inreki (lunar calendar), kamon (family crest), and so on. While LCJ encourages active participation in the conversations among those with a certain skill level, it tends to leave out others with limited skills, many of whom become hesitant in speaking out and eventually stop coming to the group. For those people, we recommend to try the Japanese Conversation Partner program, in which our staff help them find a matching partner from Japanese volunteer members to create an opportunity for a one-to-one conversation.
As a coordinator of Japanese Conversation Partner, Naoko Shiratori takes charge of "matching" foreign participants and Japanese volunteers. Ms. Shiratori originally promoted the idea of the program, who herself had an experience in living in a foreign country (Thailand) and wanted to help foreign residents in Japan who might be having a difficult time like she did.
Naoko Shiratori
Coordinator of Japanese
Conversation Partner
Future participants are asked first to fill out a registration form
Shiratori: We have a registration day on the first Saturday of each month to interview potential participants of the program. We ask them to fill out a registration form to give us information about their available days, time, language level, personal hobbies, and so on. For Japanese volunteers, we also make it clear that the purpose of the program is not a so-called language exchange but solely a provision of an opportunity of Japanese conversation to foreigners. For prospective foreign participants, we ask what types of topics they want to talk about. Based on the information on the forms, we try to find a best match, by pairing up those who share the same hobby, for example. For a beginner speaker, I look for someone who has studied teaching Japanese. The potential pair first meet within a week or two after the registration. I usually arrange two same-sex Japanese volunteers for one foreign participant. I do so because it often becomes difficult for volunteers to make it once a week. By assigning them as a team of two, it only requires either one of the volunteers to be available, which makes it easier for them to stay in the volunteer program.
Shiratori: Many Japanese volunteer members are women in their 40s and 50s who do not have small children. We also have many retired men in their 60s. Most of our foreign members are spouses of embassy officers and businessmen. For such expatriate families, wives do not have many chances to communicate with Japanese people, while their husbands are likely to have learned some business Japanese at work and children pick up quickly at school. As a result, the wives usually experience the hardest time dealing with the language barrier. The majority of our participants are such expat wives--many are in their 40s, from various different countries.
Shiratori: The matched pair may meet at our facility for the first few times. After they become acquainted and feel comfortable with each other, they can meet wherever they want. Many of them use public facilities and local cafes. Foreign participants are usually responsible for making and adjusting the meeting schedule. Everything is basically up to them--except that they are required to report major changes to us such as when they move back to their home country. The key to a long-lasting partnership is that they don't make their relationship too formal. Some members are extending their network of friends by going mountain climbing together or having a barbeque party.
Shiratori: I think the major merit of the program is that participating foreigners can learn Japan's language and understand its culture as well as way people think by going shopping, exercising at a gym, visiting a festival, and in many other daily settings. There are a lot of people who have been studying Japanese but are having a hard time to find a place where they can use what they have learned. I always give my advice to our Japanese volunteers to become a partner to whom foreign participants would be able to talk without getting nervous. Once a relaxed relationship is established, the Japanese partner can serve as someone whom the foreign partner may contact when they have troubles and need help. A number of conversation partners keep their friendship after the foreign partner has moved back home. Japanese volunteers often visit their partner's country as well. On the other hand, the program serves as a great opportunity for Japanese volunteers to appreciate traditional Japanese culture again when they help foreign participants many of whom are interested in sado (tea ceremony) and kimono, for example.
Shiratori: I would like to extend the distribution of the information of our program and want the public know better about what we are doing. We also need to establish a backup system to manage our expanding activities. Some people may think that you can do volunteer work only when you feel like it, but that is not true. To provide our service steadily, we need volunteers who can commit themselves to their responsibilities. Since the conversation partners usually meet individually, it would be nice if we can hold a meeting where the program participants get together to exchange information.
Makiko Nakajima (left) also works for the Japanese Conversation Partner program with Ms. Shiratori
Activity space at Minato International Association
Ohtomo: While the membership of the association is comprised of about 340 members, only 22 are foreign members. We would like to increase the number of the foreign members. We also want to invite foreign people who have used our various services to help us as a volunteer member. They can help us as an interpreter or serve as a presenter to speak about the culture of their home country as well as about Japan from their point of view as foreigners. One of the association's goals is to reduce "nebanaranai" (I have to do...) situations and instead increase "watashi-nimo dekiru" (I can do it too) opportunities. In other words, we want as many people as possible to be part of our diverse activities rather than being hesitant, assuming that they have to be able to speak Japanese or other foreign languages. Such language barriers can be overcome if the members serve as each other's interpreter. I believe that by promoting mutual understanding, we can lead ourselves successfully toward realizing a multi-cultural society.