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Information Center for Foreigners in Japan
Providing broad support to for foreigners living in Japan

President Akira Koike

This month's Close UP features the Information Center for Foreigners in Japan (ICFJ), which was established under the mutual collaboration between "ethnic media" or publishers of newspapers and magazines written in foreign languages whose readers are mostly foreign people living in Japan. ICFJ provides a wide range of assistance to foreign people living in Japan, such as distributing administrative information, providing living information, helping to find a place to live, translating documents, and more. For this interview, we spoke to Akira Koike, the president of ICFJ who has also been active as an editor in chief of the Filipino newspaper, and asked about the establishment and major activities of the center.

Tell us about how the center was first founded.

A.It was right after the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995 that publishers of the ethnic media gathered and discussed what they could do to help foreign residents suffering from the disaster. Seven publishers together founded the Ethnic Media Press Center(EMPC), a predecessor of ICFJ, and began reporting the disaster situation and providing assistance to foreign victims, while asking local governments to forward disaster information to them. Back then, most people did not have an idea of what ethnic media was about.
EMPC changed its organization name to the current International Center for Foreigners in Japan in 2004 and later began serving as a liaison office of the Network of Media for Foreign Residents in Tokyo, which was newly established in 2005 by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government at its Internationalization Promotion Review Committee. The Network of Media for Foreign Residents in Tokyo aims to deliver administrative information including disaster information from local governments to foreign residents in Tokyo through available ethnic media. The network currently has over 40 active members.

The Network of Media for Foreign Residents in Tokyo is operated in collaboration with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government

So the center's original purpose was to gain and distribute information from local government.

A. Yes. It is the center's most important role to obtain accurate information from the governments and forward it to the media for foreign residents. In addition to the Network of Media that we still operate with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, we have organized similar networks with other prefectures including Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa, as well as with the Immigration Bureau of the Ministry of Justice. We have also been an observer at media conferences held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While we originally covered mainly disaster information, we are capable of providing various living information today.

A disaster map is available in four languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean) and covers Nakano, Shinjuku, and Toshima Cities, where the population of foreign residents is high

Click to download a disaster map (for Nakano, Shinjuku, Toshima Cities)

We understand that the center supports the daily living of foreign residents in various fields.

A.In supporting foreigners living in Japan, our focus is placed on three key aspects: medical care, employment, and housing. These are the most important subjects as we seek solutions for problems that foreign residents are facing so as to improve the quality of their life in Japan.
First, we began tackling with the housing issues. We have conducted research and interviewed real estate agents to find out why owners of rental housings are reluctant to rent their properties to foreigners. As a result, we have discovered that there are basically three major concerns among the rental housing owners. First, they worried that foreign tenants wouldn't pay rent. Second, they worried that foreign tenants wouldn't respect daily rules and manners that are common in Japanese society. Third, they worried that foreign tenants would be hard to deal with when any troubles may occur with them because of the language barrier. These three concerns have been making it so hard for foreigners to find their housing in Japan.

What efforts have you been making to help improve these situations?

A. As for the rent issue, we have established an organization called Foreigner Life Support (FOLIS) in cooperation with a Chinese publisher and have been offering a rent guarantee service through this organization for foreigners who wish to rent an apartment. For rules and manners, we have made a guidebook about living rules and manners in Japan and have been distributing them to foreign renters through housing agents. The guidebook is available in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese (traditional/simplified) and will soon be available for downloading from the official website of the ICFJ for free of charge. Lastly, about the language barrier, foreign staff members of our media network have been helping in this area with their knowledge and experience. With these support readily available, we are hoping that the owners will feel more comfortable to rent their rooms to foreigners and that more rental properties will become available for foreigners as a result.

A symposium was held to discuss housing issues among foreign residents in Japan

How about issues regarding medical care?

A. In 2008 (Heisei 20), with a funding support from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, we have complied various living information for foreigners, including medical information, and have published it in five languages on our website under the pages titled Life Information of Foreigners in Japan. However, we do recognize that we need to continue updates and improvements. Currently, we are working with a group of students studying healthcare issues among foreign residents to make a new medical inquiry form. The form will be written in both Japanese and their native language and will be designed so that both doctors and patients can mutually share key information such as allergic information, medical history, description of current symptoms, etc. The new form will be available in Japanese, English, Chinese (traditional/simplified), Korean, and Portuguese. We will use very simple Japanese, and English will be so-called "Globish" that uses only 1,500 words. Starting with five foreign languages, we would like to expand to include other languages such as Thai and Tagalog. And in the future, we would like to make the form available in an electronic format.

What type of support are you considering to help the employment situation for foreigners?

A. It is said that about seventy percent of exchange students learning at Japanese language schools in Japan are willing to find jobs in Japan in the future. Following the change of the law, foreigners who graduate from technical colleges in Japan with a degree of senmonshi are now eligible to work legally in Japan. Therefore, we expect that there will be more and more foreign people looking for jobs in Japan. Many industries in Japan are more accepting of foreign employees who have valuable skills. Nevertheless, there will always be an issue of cultural differences when foreigners try to get a job in Japan. They need to know Japanese rules if they want to be successful in their work. From making greetings to being respectful to others, basic manners needed for daily life and for business are closely linked. We would like to teach foreign students rules and manners useful for job search or in business situation as an extension of their learning of daily rules and manners. We are currently considering offering such an educational service via telecommunication.

Do you mean that it is important that we tell our ways of rules and manners to foreign students?

A. Think about how Japanese young people would act, and you know that those around 18 or so who just graduated from high school could be wild and get loud at night even they are told not to do so. They would not know how to separate trash from recyclables. You will not learn rules or manners unless someone tells you about them. The foreign exchange students come from different cultures, so I think it is our job to help them understand our rules and manners. And in fact, they follow the rules well once they learn from us.

Disaster drill for foreign residents

Tell us about how you became involved in ethnic media.

A.I was working as a writer after leaving my job at the PR section of the film company when I was asked to be a coordinator for a film festival. In my search for the films I made a connection with the national film center in the Philippines and began introducing Filipino films to Japan. I later moved to the Philippines to learn more about their country and culture. While I was there, I tried to publish a paper for Japanese tourists coming to the Philippines but was not very successful. Then, I came up with an idea about publishing a paper for Filipino people living in Japan instead. It was about the time when the number of Filipino immigrants to Japan was gradually increasing. I have been an editor in chief for the paper for Filipino people in Japan since 1991.


Ethnic media available in various languages

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

A. I think we Japanese people need to make more efforts to learn and understand different cultures. The best way to do so is to visit their countries and have many experiences there. In Japan, we can still do so by finding as many opportunities as possible to speak to foreign people. There are so many foreign residents here who have no connection with Japanese people and therefore are having hard time to make Japanese friends. As for the rules and manners in the daily life, they can learn most naturally from their Japanese friends. I hope there will be more Japanese host families who are willing to take in exchange students from overseas. Make friends with a foreigner, and you will feel so close to overseas. "America" may be just a name of a country but "home of my friend John" means something special to you. You can expand your world by making friends with people from outside Japan. It completely changed my life. Now, you should be the next one who enjoys meeting new foreign friends.