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Housing complex with foreign, Japanese residents provide model for a diverse society

"Syvantho Asia Foods" owner Tomio Uehara, right, welcomes a customer to his shop in Yokohama's Izumi Ward, on Nov. 27, 2018. (Mainichi/Hong Minhyang)

YOKOHAMA -- At the Kanagawa prefectural housing complex "Icho Danchi" on the outskirts of this city south of Tokyo, both Japanese residents and those from various countries have long worked together to find ways to resolve cultural differences and search for the elements needed for everyone to live peacefully together.

Japan is coming closer than ever to accepting more foreign workers to alleviate worsening labor shortages. A bill to amend the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act was approved at during a plenary session of the House of Representatives on the evening of Nov. 27. The history of the residential complex, which was established in 1970 and about 20 percent of whose residents are foreign nationals, may just provide clues for how Japan can build a diverse society.

A signboard on the premises of Icho Danchi displays residential rules and responsibilities in multiple languages, including Vietnamese and Chinese. Grocery store "Syvantho Asia Foods" occupies in the complex's commercial space. Shrimp paste, rice paper and other ingredients used in various regions across Asia are crammed on its shelves.

Syvantho's 64-year-old shop owner Tomio Uehara fled civil war-torn Cambodia to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1981 with his wife and baby daughter. Uehara, whose Cambodian name is Samreth Syvantho, came to Japan from Indochina when the government began accepting refugees fleeing war and political upheaval in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He applied for refugee status about a year later and settled in at Icho Danchi after obtaining Japanese citizenship.

Customers of various nationalities come to Uehara's store, which opened 12 years earlier, looking for a taste of their homeland. People who are not fluent in Japanese sometimes come to ask him how to pay their utility bills, too.

The housing complex has grown into a place where numerous foreign nationals can live together and in coexistence with Icho's Japanese residents. Since no problems can be solved without cooperation, both sides have been open to understanding each other despite language differences. However, Uehara still feels that "it's necessary (for foreign residents) to learn Japanese in order to follow Japanese rules."

Members of the "Tabunka Machizukuri Kobo" volunteer group provide support for Icho Danchi's foreign residents within the complex. The organization was established after a Japanese language class was set up in 1994, when organization leader Hideki Hayakawa was still a student. The class was for returning Japanese orphans that had been left behind in China after World War II. Now, the group's activities have become wide-ranging, and include consultations on issues in daily life facilitated by volunteer interpreters.

This Nov. 16, 2018 photo shows a signboard with residential rules and responsibilities written in multiple languages, at Icho Danchi in Yokohama's Izumi Ward. (Mainichi/Hong Minhyang)

According to Icho Danchi community association chairman Yukio Yagi, 74, the Japanese residents of the complex have not always welcomed their foreign neighbors, and problems did occur when the number of non-Japanese residents began to increase.

There were complaints about the loud noise made by an industrial sewing machine used for a part-time job, the strong smell of spices and other friction. Even so, the two sides overcame the problems through the mediation of obliging people and other methods. Yagi emphasized that "there must be steady efforts," such as neighbors coming together to discuss common subjects like throwing out the garbage and community events, in order to facilitate understanding between everyone in the building.

Icho Danchi's Japanese residents are now growing older, while some foreigners are having children. "I hope that young people with foreign citizenship will become involved in community activities in the future," Yagi said.

However, Yagi is filled with mixed feels as he watches the government rushing to amend immigration laws. He feels that the acceptance of foreign nationals is proceeding merely in order to secure a stable source of labor.

"How will conflicting issues like the gap between language and cultures be handled?" Yagi questioned. "Discussion on the bill lacks the point of view of ordinary people leading ordinary lives."

(Japanese original by Hong Minhyang and Atsuko Ishizuka, Yokohama Bureau)

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