September 2018


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Asia Commons

- Offering opportunities to people of different generations and cultures to interact as residents under one roof -

In Close Up this month, we introduce Asia Commons, a non-profit organization with its base in Kita City, Tokyo. Its catch phrase is, “Finding a way to flourish as Asians”. Since its founding, the organization has developed various activities in collaboration with citizens from different parts of Asia to promote mutual understanding and international interactions. A trial was initiated in 2016 at the Toshima 5-Chome Housing Complex in Kita City to provide opportunities to socialize to the marginalized, such as the foreign residents and seniors living in the housing complex, with the aim of creating a society where people can live peacefully without feeling lonely regardless of their nationality or age. On this occasion we spoke to Ms. Mio Aso (president), Mr. Seiichiro Aso (vice-president), and Ms. Kazuko Nagasawa (staff member), about the “Asian Library Café” located in the Toshima 5-Chome Housing Complex.

From left to right: Mr. Seiichiro Aso,
vice-president; Ms. Kazuko Nagasawa,
staff member; and Ms. Mio Aso, president

Please tell us what led to the establishment of the organization.

Ms. Aso

The basis of my desire to develop grass-root activities for cross-cultural communication and multicultural coexistence was when I was in Japanese school and working for Japanese companies I experienced labored breathing and feeling, “I must get along with everyone”, and “I mustn’t trouble anyone”. The labored breathing I experienced was alleviated when I was in a culture that was not Japanese, such as while studying in China and while working for ten years with a Korean company. Later, while volunteering at an evening middle school offering supplementary classes, I witnessed with my own eyes---the children who refused to go to school, the foreigners who could not speak Japanese, the elderly who had not attended school due to the chaos after the war---all learned together and began to open their hearts. When people from different generations and cultures are together, they feel it is fine to have differences and are more relaxed and can relate more, than when they are only with people of the same generation and culture. We wanted to found an NPO, called Asia Commons, in order to create with our own hands a place where new values can emerge, combining contrasting values of different generations and cultures.

Please tell us about the principal activities of Asia Commons.

Ms. Aso

The activities that we have been doing since founding the organization are offering Korean language courses which aim to encourage interaction with Korean people, and the “Project to Encourage Dialogue between Chinese and Japanese Citizens”, whereby persons active in Chinese civil society are invited to Japan to interact with Japanese people, among others. In addition, in October 2016 the “Everyone’s Child Café & Asian Library” was inaugurated in the Toshima 5-Chome Housing Complex of Kita City, a place where Japanese and foreign residents can socialize, and which continues today as the “Asian Library Café”. With 4,900 families, the Toshima 5-Chome Housing Complex is the largest in Kita City, with an estimated 30% of residents from abroad. I was told there were numerous foreign residents who could not adapt to the society in Japan, had no Japanese friends, and that made me want to create a place where anyone could freely drop in to talk and consult about anything. This was the beginning of “Asian Library”. I was also told that in this housing complex the Japanese residents were aging, and that gave me the idea of offering seniors living alone a place to participate in various activities.

The “Asian Library Café” in the Toshima 5-Chome Housing Complex.
A place where foreign and Japanese residents socialize.
©AsiaCommons

Year-end-party with a friendly atmosphere
where everyone enjoys chatting.
©AsiaCommons

Please give us details about the “Asian Library Café”

Ms. Aso

This activity takes place every Tuesday from 3 to 6:30 PM at the “Waku Waku Station”, a community space in the housing complex. The majority of foreign participants are Chinese mothers between 25 to 35 years old with small children. Another part is made up of Japanese participants spanning a much broader range of ages from 20s to 70s, with the majority in their 50s and 60s. We also receive students from high school and university when they are able to participate as volunteers, such as during the summer break.
Since the majority of foreign participants want to learn the language, the Japanese participants help them practice everyday conversation, prepare for the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, as well as offer support with graduate school applications and job interviews. As much as possible we also offer support with difficulties associated with childcare and life skills. In addition we frequently organize events and to date have held events such as Computer Class, Let’s Prepare Boiled Gyoza, Let’s Make Postcards by Carving Wooden Stamps, and Exercises to Reduce Knee/Shoulder/Back Stiffness.

Japanese conversation lesson.
Participants attend with their children.
©AsiaCommons

The Asian Library organizes different events.
Here participants are exercising to alleviate body stiffness.
©AsiaCommons

We have heard that the present activities of the “Asian Library” are different than what was originally conceived.

Mr. Aso

The “Asian Library” began as a service to the children of foreigners in elementary and middle school. However after beginning this activity we quickly realized that the number of foreign mothers with pre-school children was dramatically increasing in the housing complex. The majority of them are the wives of foreign workers posted in Japan. They never foresaw coming to Japan because of their husband’s job, and so had never studied Japanese. Once in Japan, they don’t have the time to learn Japanese at a language school because they are occupied with the children. As a result, unable to speak Japanese, they remain isolated from the community in the housing complex. Though presently the principle activity of the Asian Library is to learn Japanese to address the circumstances of the majority of foreign participants, our original objective was for foreign residents to blend in with the local community by participating in festivals and events of the housing complex and the neighborhood. But to achieve this objective it is indispensable to learn Japanese so they may interact, and for that reason it is vitally important at present to offer support to learn the language.

What are the comments of the participants at the “Asian Library”?

Ms. Aso

The most common comment from foreign participants: “The Japanese are warm-hearted and friendly”. And from Japanese participants: “I am surprised by the innocence of the foreigners. It is interesting to learn something about a country I don’t know. It motivates me to learn another language”. One Japanese gentleman who believed that all foreigners were too uneducated to take out their own garbage, changed his mind as he socialized with foreigners at the “Asian Library”.

Ms. Nagasawa

When Japanese people, who are normally reserved with foreigners, and foreigners, who don’t normally speak with Japanese people, are given the opportunity to socialize they mutually learn many things. Both Japanese and foreigners have commented that conversation allows each to realize that the other may hold different points of view, but they share many similarities too, and this motivates them to meet more people.

Are there any problems with the activities?

Ms. Aso

At the moment the majority of foreign participants are Chinese and we hope to gain newcomers from other countries too. We found that scouting for foreign residents roaming in the housing complex is a more effective way to recruit foreign participants than attaching notices to bulletin boards, a practice we definitely would like to continue.

Ms. Nagasawa

Another issue is the few elderly Japanese participants. We would like to challenge the elderly with time on their hands to try socializing with foreigners who want to learn Japanese. We believe that the elderly can be energized by the mainly young foreign participants. We hope that the circle of friends grows to form relationships which offer mutual support when one person experiences difficulties.

A Chinese participant shows how to prepare
boiled gyoza and everyone tries to do the same
©AsiaCommons

Children learn Chinese characters while playing karuta.
©AsiaCommons

What is planned for future activities?

Ms. Aso

As a short-term goal, we are examining the possibility of organizing events in which the elderly and foreigners can enjoy games of Go and Mah-jongg, provide life skill consulting support to foreign residents, and offer disaster prevention courses. In addition, as a way to raise funds for the organization’s activities, we are considering to sell boiled gyoza, which was very popular during the Fall Festival last year, and to elaborate a disaster prevention manual in several languages.

Mr. Aso

And lastly, speaking in the long-term, in addition to aspiring to realize a model in which foreigners and elderly revitalize the region together we would like, that before returning to their homeland, foreigners living in the Toshima 5-Chome Housing Complex learn what local autonomy is like and how to participate in the activities of the local community. If we could, it would delight us to offer fellow Asians, who are rightly proud of their country and perhaps don’t feel attached or sense they belong in the place they reside, a new model of civil society.

Tokyo International Communication Committee

Ono Bldg. 3F, 17-15 Kandamatsunagacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 101-0023
TEL:03-5294-6542 FAX:03-5294-6540