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Future of Shrinking Japan: Efforts needed to ensure living with foreigners in harmony

Chinese residents receive "mochi" rice cakes during a mochitsuki (rice cake making) event at a public housing complex in Mihama Ward, Chiba, on Dec. 9, 2018. (Mainichi/Tetsuro Tamaki)

CHIBA -- Japanese and Chinese residents were seen at a rice cake-making event held at a municipal housing complex in the Takahama 1-chome district, part of the Kaihin New Town in this eastern Japan city's Mihama Ward on Dec. 9. Japanese and Chinese phrases meaning "It tastes good" were frequently heard during the gathering.

Japanese people traditionally make "mochi" rice cakes for New Year's and other celebratory occasions. Steamed mochigome, or glutinous rice, is placed in a mortar and a pounder is used to make the rice into mochi.

All those who pound rice to make mochi are Japanese residents of the area where the population is rapidly aging. "I want young people to do this but it's difficult," says Tamotsu Okada, 68, leader of a neighborhood association that organized the event.

As of the end of 2017, there were some 6,700 foreign residents in Mihama Ward, accounting for 4.5 percent of its total population of some 148,000. Yet the figure rises to 21.6 percent in the Takahama 1-chome district, most of them Chinese people.

According to the Chiba Municipal Government and others, the number of Chinese residents in the housing complex began to increase sometime around 1990. Many of the Chinese moved into public apartment blocks attracted by their low rents and their relatives subsequently joined them.

While Japanese residents are aging, there are many Chinese raising their children in the complex. However, the Chinese are not necessarily interacting actively with the Japanese.

Some Japanese residents complain about the manners of some Chinese inhabitants, saying things like, "They don't abide by the rules for sorting out garbage," and "They fail to park their bicycles at designated locations."

The Chiba City Housing Supply Corp. that manages the public housing complexes in the area has hired interpreters during briefing sessions for such apartment blocks and put up instructions in Chinese but Japanese residents' complaints have not decreased significantly.

There are also many Japanese people living in the facility who had remained in northeastern China, which had been called Manchuria, after the end of World War II. These people have Japanese nationality and Japanese names, but they are not fluent in Japanese. A 74-year-old man, who came back to Japan in 1994 with the help of supporters, is one of them. He greets his neighbors whenever he sees them and participates in a monthly cleaning activity, but he does not interact closely with other Japanese residents.

"If something happens, I'll consult Chinese residents," he said.

-- Struggle for Japanese, foreign residents to live in harmony

If Japan begins to accept more foreign workers in April 2019 under the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, the Kaihin New Town may become home to many of these workers.

Problems experienced by residents of the Takahama 1-chome district could herald what will happen when Japan opens its doors wider to foreign workers.

It is no easy task to make sure that Japanese residents and foreign workers live in harmony with each other.

There are some foreigners who eventually fit into society after many ups and downs. One of them, 36-year-old Chinese resident Zou Xiaoyi recalled that she had been repeatedly warned by a 69-year-old woman living downstairs over the way she hung futon mats to dry and the sound levels of the electronic piano her children played. Zou tried to get used to Japanese custom and rules.

"While there were people who admonished me severely, the woman kindly provided explanations," Zou said. She now consults with the woman over childrearing.

Children from 10 countries and regions, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Hungary, attend an elementary school her son is enrolled in.

Zou has participated in volunteer activities to support schoolchildren who do not speak Japanese well, and is now serving as a board member of the school's PTA.

The woman living downstairs warmly watches over Zou and her family. "I've lived in this housing complex for nearly 30 years. There are people I can make friends with and those I can't. Whether they are Japanese or not is irrelevant. What's important is how we interact with each other," she said.

-- Despite efforts, achieving mutual understanding a struggle

The government has characterized foreigners as "important members of regional communities where depopulation and aging is progressing." The government intends to help Japanese people and foreigners interact with each other with the aim of achieving a society in which people with different cultural backgrounds can coexist in harmony. However, specific measures to achieve this goal will be left to the discretion of local bodies.

The municipal government of Chiba, which hosts the Kaihin New Town, has trained interpreters and organized events to help Japanese and foreign residents interact with each other.

However, a survey the municipal government conducted in 2015 shows that only 12.9 percent replied that mutual understanding between Japanese and non-Japanese residents had been deepened, almost the same level as in the previous survey in 2012. Those who answered they did not think so accounted for 30.9 percent, about 1.5 times the figure in 2012, which stood at 20.8 percent.

Some municipal government workers think it is difficult to achieve a peaceful coexistence between Japanese and foreign residents.

"We've been unable to catch up with an increase in the number of foreign residents and the diversification of residents' nationalities. Even if the central government is to extend assistance to us, it'll be difficult to fundamentally improve the situation," one official said.

(Japanese original by Shin Yasutaka, Jun Kaneko and Hiroshi Endo, City News Department, and Buntaro Saito, Chiba Bureau)

This is Part 3 of a series.

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