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Bridge Asia Japan Building bridges of heart between Asia and Japan

This month's Close UP features Bridge Asia Japan (BAJ), a nongovernmental organization which has been operating international support activities in Myanmar and Vietnam since its establishment in 1994. The name of the organization represents its passion for building a bridge of mutual understanding and trust between people in Asia and Japan. For this interview, Etsuko Nemoto, president of the organization, answered our questions about local activities of BAJ as well as how we can best support their effort.

Etsuko Nemoto, President

Please tell us about how BAJ was founded.

A book of posthumous writings by
the late Araishi,
who was a husband of Ms. Nemoto

A.Masahiro Araishi, the founder of BAJ, was a college student when he started helping exchange students from Vietnam. After the end of the Vietnam War, Araishi continued to support people in Vietnam by sending rice to a school for the deaf in the Ho Chi Minh City while running a trading business between Vietnam and Japan. In 1993, he established a nongovernmental organization called Indo-China Citizens Center to expand his support activities. The center was helping orphans and disabled children in Vietnam when we were asked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be part of a project to help refugees return home in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. There were both opinions among NGOs whether or not we should operate in Myanmar as it was being ruled under the military regime. We were also hesitant because we had had no experience in directly providing support by staying in the recipient countries. However, we came to the conclusion that we had to do it otherwise no one would. In 1994, prior to starting our operation in Myanmar, we changed our name to Bridge Asia Japan.

What kind of activities did you first operate in the Rakhine State, Myanmar?

A.A large population of Muslims has traditionally lived near the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh in the north part of the Rakhine State. From 1991 to 1992, however, over 200,000 Muslim people from this area became refugees and fled to Bangladesh. In 1994, the UNHCR began its project to send them back home to Myanmar, and BAJ joined the project in 1995 and began its local operation to help with this repatriation. We opened the BAJ technical center in Maungdaw, Rakhine and taught returning refugees skills such as machinery repair and welding as a means to earn their living. Later, we began offering training to women in such skills as sewing.

A sewing class traveled to teach women
in a local village (in Myanmar) ©BAJ

What were your special concerns you had when operating support activities in Maungdaw?

Children smiling at a school built
by the organization (in Myanmar) ©BAJ

A.People with different ethnic backgrounds live in the area, including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and minority ethnic groups. When we hire local staff members for our project, we always try to keep an ethnic diversity among the members. With people speaking different languages and coming from different customs working in a same place, we often had intense arguments among the staff at first. However, once major projects such as building bridges and digging wells began, people started seeing that things wouldn't go well unless they cooperated with each other whether or not they understood each other's languages. Then, they gradually realized that it is very important to work together with others regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Sadako Ogata once said that to achieve ethnic reconciliation, education is necessary first; creating a workplace where people have to help each other to get things going is next. I totally agree with her. I was so glad to hear when one of our local staff members, who has been working with us for over 10 years, told me that he is Muslim but part of his blood is BAJ.

How did you start a project of constructing bridges in Maungdaw?

A.Maungdaw is known as an area that receives heavy rainfall, as much as 6000 ml a year, which concentrates during rainy season. Original bridges were lost because of the flooding, and there was no access by car which we needed to send refugees back home. We decided to make one by ourselves and brought in a bridge specialist from Yangon. We gathered workers from local communities who wanted to learn about and be trained in building bridges, because learning such skills would give them a chance for employment. We built our first bridge to make a way for refugees to return home and continued to make more after that.

Local people walking over
a newly built bridge (in Myanmar) ©BAJ

We understand that BAJ is operating a project of making wells in another area of Myanmar.

A.The government of Myanmar asked us to dig a well in a dried area in the central part of the country, after they heard about our bridge work in Maungdaw and thought we were skilled to make wells too. This area receives a scarce amount of rainfall of about 600 ml annually, and securing water for living has been a major challenge for local people. It is often said there that water is more important than gold. We run this well project also by transferring skills to local staff members and village people. It is necessary for them to be skilled so that they can maintain the wells and do basic repair work by themselves after BAJ leaves.

Children and village people are excited for the completion of their well (in Myanmar) ©BAJ

Can you tell us about some of the difficulties you have had while working in Myanmar?

A.It is truly hard to work in this country. For example, a delta area in southern Myanmar falls on a zone that is prone to cyclones, and there was major damage in this area caused by Cyclone Giri in 2010. However, because of the Myanmar government's control of the media, not much information about the damage was reported in Japan, which made it really hard for us to collect funds for providing emergency support. I sincerely hope that the situation will gradually change in a better way.

A school building is designed to function as an emergency shelter in case of cyclones (in Myanmar) ©BAJ

Tell us about the organization's activities in Vietnam.

Children collecting and separating trash (in Vietnam) ©BAJ

A.In 2001, we began our work to improve living conditions in urban law-income areas following the request by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to do research on the situation of trash disposal. In a slum area where no garbage collection system was established, all trash was thrown into a nearby river. To begin with, we held a cooking contest and showed the audience at the end of the contest how much garbage was produced after one cooking. We explained what would happen to the garbage after being thrown away, introduced them to the benefits of separating trash into different types, and gave them a trash can. By collecting trash from each household and selling a certain amount of collected trash to a dealer, the community was able to raise funds to install street lights and build a public restroom. After that, more and more people became interested and began participating in trash separation and collection.

We heard that local children are also helping collect trash.

A.They have made groups of seven to eight kids of various ages, older ones leading younger ones. Each group has their own strategy for collecting trash, such as which routes to take and whether they should ring bells to let people know. A piece of trash on a street is likely to attract more trash unless it is picked up. One kid said to me that no one would leave trash once they clean the street. It tells me that the kids are really witnessing the result of their effort.

Discussing today's activity over the map (in Vietnam) ©BAJ

Do you have any other assistance projects currently running in law-income areas?

Cheerful and energetic children
(in Vietnam) ©BAJ

A.Juku, or tutoring schools, are popular in Vietnam as well as in Japan. For children in law-income areas who cannot afford the tutoring school, we have volunteers of college students who help such children study and do homework for about an hour after school. As children start getting better grades, parents start changing their attitude too and becoming more interested in children's education. Some kids from the poor district have successfully entered high schools. Other supports we offer include microcredit loans of a small amount of money. I have a sincere respect for our local staff members who visit each household on foot to learn about their financial needs and often stay to listen to people tell of their other problems.

We heard that your organization also emphasizes environmental education in Vietnam.

A.Local staff members serve as teachers of environmental education and lead a group of junior high school students to study environment through various activities. We once held a friendship exchange program by bringing Vietnamese children who have been participating in environmental activities to Japan and let them meet Japanese elementary school children. Despite our concerns of language barriers, children from both countries started playing together and quickly became friends. I believe such an experience will leave a special feeling about Japan among Vietnamese children. Once they grow up, their good memories may bring something to us in return. I would like to continue such exchange programs between children.

In middle of science experiment with children (in Vietnam) ©BAJ

How do you seek support in Japan for the BAJ's activities?

A.We have started a program of recycling used clothes, called "furu-kuru." Donated clothes will be purchased by a fabric recycling manufacturer, and the sale will be used for supporting our activities in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Tohoku, Japan. BAJ's main activities are related to civil engineering, such as building bridges in Myanmar, which may appear a bit too serious. So we are trying to show more friendliness and open opportunities to invite people to be part of our effort. Our young staff members in the Tokyo office have been very creative in planning fun events such as a gel nail class, a cooking class, a coloring contest, and so on. I receive comments these days that it seems like lots of fun stuff is going on at BAJ.

    Artworks from the Coloring Contest
in Japan ©BAJ

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

A.We Japanese cannot live our lives without other countries. There are so many things you can do for them. Simply sending used clothes is one way of showing our support to the world as Japanese. I would love to see more Japanese people becoming interested in our activities and help us in any way they can.

Messages from children in Vietnam ©BAJ

About BAJ's winter campaign this year (November 2011 to January 2012)
(from BAJ staff member Ms. Osu)

Our winter campaign this year will be themed on "children." Since the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred in March, we have received so much support from recipients of BAJ's assistance programs, including heartwarming messages from children in Vietnam and money donations from a village in Myanmar. International cooperation is not a one-way activity by Japan, and people will help Japan when we need support. We would like to use this year's campaign to let people be more aware that we are all connected to other people of the world. In addition to the "furu-kuru" program, we would like to continue providing more easy-to-join opportunities in which people can help our activities with what they already have at home, such as postcards with written mistakes, unused postal stamps, and such. Your participation is always welcome.

"From Tokyo! Disaster Recovery Support Volunteers" We created a display board
filled with supportive messages from Vietnam. ©BAJ