Tokyo YWCA 'Japanese Mothers for International Students' Movement: Building a relationship with international students to learn from each other
Amiko Fujita
This month's Close UP introduces you to 'Japanese Mothers for International Students' Movement, one of the major ongoing programs at Tokyo YWCA. Based on a student-mother matching system by which one volunteer member as a Japanese mother is assigned to each international student, the program conducts a variety of activities to support international students' lives in Japan, from opening a Saturday conversation lounge and an advisory room to offering scholarships. This time, we asked program manager Amiko Fujita to talk about the program.
How did the ‘Japanese Mothers for International Students’ movement start?

In 1961, an international student who participated in a Star Festival party at Tokyo YWCA told us that she was having a difficult time making connections with Japanese people. Some members of YWCA who heard about it suggested a new program that allows international students to be part of Japanese families. Our first match of a student and a Japanese mother was made in the same year. Since then, the Japanese Mothers for International Students movement has helped international students find their Japanese mothers for nearly fifty years. Many of our program graduates continue the relationship with their Japanese mothers. I know one student who was in the program 20 years ago still maintains communications with her Japanese mother today. We hold a guidance session every April for students who are interested in the program. Every year, we receive more applications than available openings, many from those who have heard about the program from other international students from their home countries. This year, we received 132 applications, and 81 new matches were born from a drawing.

Many students continue friendship with their Japanese
mothers and families after graduating the program
How do you decide a match between an international student and a Japanese mother?
We ask participating Japanese mothers to be open to any students regardless of their nationalities and genders, so they do not choose with whom they are matched. We want them to enjoy an "encounter brought by a stork." On the last Saturday of May, we hold a meeting day when students and their mothers meet for the first time. Each student is called up to a stage and is introduced to others in the room, when his/her Japanese mother stands up from crowds and greets the student. This is the most nervous moment for both the students and the mothers.
At a meeting day
How do international students and Japanese mothers communicate during the program?

We ask volunteer mothers not to host the students but to treat the students as part of their family's everyday lives. They may cook with students some local dishes from student's home or have students help with their year-end house cleaning. Any simple thing would work, and there are no rules of what to do or how often to do their activities. Some mothers stay very close to their students; some see the students only on weekends because they have to work during weekdays. What is most important is that they work toward building a relationship in which students feel comfortable asking the mothers for help when they need it. Also, some mothers prefer to help one student through seven to eight years from his/her first year at Japanese language school until he/she completes the graduate school, while some choose to meet and support different students every year.

Does the program offer other activities than individual-based activities?

We have ten regional groups by major train lines, and each group makes plans for events such as bus tours, museum tours, and other friendship exchange opportunities. Some mothers bring their families including their husbands and children to the events, which sometimes help male students find Japanese fathers with whom they feel close.

Events by regional groups
Bus tour At Kasai Rinkai Park
We also offer different annual events and programs as part of the movement, including the International Student Japanese Language Speech Contest. Since more students aim to find jobs in Japan today, we had our first workshop, "Working in Japan," this February by inviting former international students who are now working in Japan. We had speakers from China, Taiwan, and Thailand, who told us about how they found their jobs and what they do at work today. It seems that the workshop became a rare opportunity for the students to hear others' real job-hunting experiences, whether they are currently looking for a job or are still trying to decide what to do. It was a landmark for us in that the workshop was planned together by former international students and young Japanese people.
Working in Japan
A scene at "Working in Japan" workshop Next "Working in Japan" is scheduled on Dec. 5
Can you explain about the advisory room and the conversation lounge?

At the International Student Advisory Room, visitors may consult with our volunteers about their concerns such as schools, housing, work, visa, and such. As one of the activities at the advisory room, we offer a "kayoo room" (Tuesday salon), which aims to support students' learning of Japanese language. Volunteers give one-on-one help based on each student's needs, from helping them catch up with Japanese language classes to checking the Japanese of their report they have to submit to the school. Since this is an individual service, we ask for an advance reservation up to one day before the open day of the salon.
At the Saturday Conversation Lounge which we open every Saturday afternoon, visitors may be seated at any table and enjoy chatting with others in Japanese. Visitors can come and leave at any time during the open hours. The conversation lounge is not limited to international students but is open to those who are currently working. During the same hours, we also offer Japanese language classes using free newspaper as study material.

Volunteer members at the advisory room "Kayoo Room" to support students to learn Japanese language
How can one be part of the
We hold a guidance session for future volunteers in March. For those who are new to Tokyo YWCA, we first ask them to become a member with us to be part of our volunteer team. Because of the program's title, some people may think only those who are mothers in real life can become a volunteer, but we also welcome those who may have a full-time job, have no child themselves, or live alone. Young members are often found to be more like a big sister for the students. For the first year, new volunteers will be among other Japanese mothers who are to be matched with the government-sponsored international students.
After the second year, the volunteers may continue to serve as a Japanese mother or may choose to help other activities for the program they may be interested in, such as helping the conversation lounge or planning a next speech contest.
Scenes from the International Student Japanese language Speech Contest
We understand scholarship programs are also your current major focus.

At a debriefing meeting of short-term scholarship recipients

Yes, we have a yearly scholarship program for students who are in the first or second year at universities, junior colleges, or vocational schools, and also a six-month short-term scholarship for those who are in the third and fourth year at the universities. Of those, we recently started the six-month program after we saw some students having financial difficulties in the last few years because of a reduced allowance caused by the strong yen or unemployment after the employer went bankrupt. Our goal is to ease the students' anxiety as much as possible so that they can better focus on searching for a job or writing a paper.

What is the movement's next goal?

Our 'Japanese Mothers for International Students' movement marks its 50th anniversary next year. As ages, purposes, lengths of stay, and other factors of international students have diversified today, it is a good time for us to review the program and see if our activities are truly meeting needs of today's international students. Although today's advanced technologies allow international students to contact their families in home easily by phones and e-mails, they still need help from Japanese people living nearby who can directly offer their hand to them. While promoting the student-mother matching as our main project, we would like to continue creating a place where international students may feel welcomed and comfortable to ask questions or gather information.

 Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

Our hope is that our international students develop a positive image of Japan during their stay through activities at the grassroots level and go home with that feeling. Those students can act as a bridge in the future to connect their home country with Japan, and this may eventually contribute to building a peaceful world. To realize this, we want Japanese people to view international students not as a special people but as fellow neighbors who also live in Japan. I think the most important key to the international exchange is to have an attitude that allows us to learn from each other.

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