Our monthly online newsletter,"L'ESPACE".
L'ESPACE is a diverse French word that means place,area,cosmos,and gap.
- Nurturing a mindset that is more accepting of diversity through the multilingual picture book reading -
In Close Up this month we introduce ICRIS Setagaya based in Setagaya Ward. ICRIS Setagaya is an NPO dedicated to the development of a close-knit child-rearing community open to everyone from all backgrounds, languages and cultures. The organization is named ICRIS from an acronym for "Intercultural Child-rearing Information Station." We spoke with its representative, Ms. Chiharu Yoshida, and the deputy representative, Ms. Ksenia Golovina, two mothers, each with 2 children, who are also researchers interested in raising children in multicultural families. They note that their activity has morphed from creating places where foreign mothers could visit with their children into nurturing a mentality that accepts diversity through the multilingual picture book reading.
Please tell us what led to the establishment of ICRIS Setagaya.
In the past I taught Japanese to international students, but after giving birth and raising my child, I began to pay attention to foreign mothers raising children in our community. In the parks and hospitals near where I once lived, Ikejiri, I saw mothers from foreign countries everyday. However, I never met them in the children´s centers or other facilities meant for families, except for one, Ms. Golovina. She was the only mother from another country that I met in these places. This made me wonder how foreign-born mothers, coming from other cultures and having different languages, raised their children without family supports. When my child was 8 months old, I began to attend graduate school and in the multiculturalism class met a student mother in the same situation I was in. We immediately agreed to create a space where foreign mothers and their children would feel welcome, and so, with other mothers, we established ICRIS in 2014. We initially started ICRIS in three locations, Setagaya Ward, Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo, and Ichikawa City in Chiba, each offering activities suited to the needs of their community. At present, only the ICRIS in Setagaya continues offering activities on a regular basis, due to members relocating and for other reasons.
Ms. Golovina, what motivated you to participate in the activities of ICRIS?
I am from Russia, and together with my Japanese husband, are raising our children as an international family. Though we have encountered various problems, thanks to the friendships forged with Ms. Yoshida and other mothers and fathers in the community, we have been able to enhance the enjoyment of raising our children. However, it is not easy for foreign mothers, just recently arrived in Japan and not having much language skills, to visit a children's center in their community. In fact, there are many foreign mothers who don't know that children’s centers and similar child-friendly places even exist. I have conducted research on foreign residents in Japan over a long period of time, and heard them remark quite often that they cannot connect with Japanese people, establish friendships, etc.. As a result, I had the idea that we ourselves could create a communal place where Japanese and foreign residents can intermingle, not necessarily to provide help, but to offer a space where both parties can unite and socialize to become mother-friends and father-friends.
Can you tell us what activities ICRIS Setagaya has offered to date?
For the first two years we offered Multicultural Family Gatherings with a subsidy from the Setagaya Ward International Peace Exchange Foundation. That is, we organized family events such as the Bean-Throwing Festival and Christmas celebrations where families with foreign roots and Japanese families in the community can get together and mingle. These events were very popular but difficult to organize on a regular basis due to their large scale. Another downside is that there were people who felt uncomfortable socializing with strangers at these large events.
Therefore, we focused on the reading of English and Russian picture books that we offered at our Multicultural Family Gatherings, because one can enjoy this activity just by being there. The goal of ICRIS was to create a space where heartfelt connections could be forged between participants, rather than just holding another cultural event, which are very common. We also wanted to provide a place where foreign residents in Japan could speak and listen to their native language. This is the way that the “Multilingual Picture Book Reading Event” began. Since 2016 we have held 5 events per year with subsidies from the Setagaya Ward Child Foundation.
Can you give us more details about the Picture Book Reading Event?
We offer the reading picture book activity in 4 languages to international families with preschool children and Japanese families interested in multilingualism and multiculturalism. The people reading books are members of ICRIS, participating families, and international students. We choose a theme and select books for each event and offer various related activities. At the closing of the event we gather to chat and savor sweets. Families having the time can bring their lunch and we have a relaxing time eating together.
As for languages read at the Picture Book Reading Event, in addition to the usual Japanese, English and Russian books, we have also used picture books in a wide variety of other languages such as Chinese, Korean, French, German, Thai, Burmese, Arabic and Armenian. Even when they don't know the language, the children listen attentively. The Giant Turnip is a very popular picture book in Japan and the children are gleefully animated when I read the well-known, "Oomph and a hoomph and a double-de-oomph! ", in Russian. It is interesting to note the cultural particularities of a country that are revealed by the illustrations and colors of picture books. At every event we display picture books around the venue for participants to browse freely.
Has anything changed since the start of the Picture Book Reading Event four years ago?
When we presented our activities in Ikejiri, about 60% of participants were Japanese families and 40% international families. Later the percentage of Japanese families increased after we relocated our base of activities near the Keio Line. As a result, at present the goal of the Picture Book Reading Event is changing to focus on nurturing one's mindset to accept diversity. The theme of the event this past January was, "Everyone is different. Everyone is wonderful". Through the picture book about a penguin gay couple, And Tango Makes Three, and the puppet show about a boy who loves skirts, Iris's Birthday, we transmitted the message that individuals and the makeup of a family can be diverse. It was the first time we addressed sexuality and family diversity in the Picture Book Reading Event.
In addition, after consulting with members, we elaborated an ICRIS original picture book with the theme "open-minded about diversity". Going forward, I would like to increase its use in the Picture Book Reading Event.
Please tell us about any activities planned for the future.
I would like to continue with the Multilingual Book Reading Event long into the future. Participation is limited to children of preschool age, but obviously there is a big difference between a baby less than a year old and a 5 or 6-year-old. In April 2020 we will extend the age of participants to the first years of elementary school, and begin offering two sessions of the Event, one for children from a few months to 3 years old, and another for older children. In addition, I would like one day to acquire a site to serve as our base of operations, a place exclusively belonging to ICRIS where anyone can drop in to chat or read picture books. Of course, this is still only a dream.
I am currently teaching Japanese in preschool to children with ties overseas. When I ask mothers to bring picture books from their respective countries, it frequently happens that they don’t have any. We are well aware through ICRIS activities of the positive impact of picture books. I would like to launch a mobile library to loan picture books in various languages to whoever wants them. The problem is that we have no place to store them. It is my wish to one day fulfill my dream.
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