TOKYO -- There are many examples of children of foreign nationalities falling by the wayside in Japan, after arriving unable to speak the language and then struggling to fit in at school or in society.
But Sahel Rosa, 34, came to Japan from the chaotic aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and went on to become an actor and TV personality. She recently sat down for an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, and reflected on the difficulties children from abroad can have when starting a new life in Japan, and the help she received which enabled her to succeed.
Mainichi Shimbun: Could you tell us a bit about the circumstances that led to you coming to Japan?
Sahel Rosa: I was born in 1985, in a small town in Iran. From age 4, I was living in an orphanage. A university student who came there are as a volunteer adopted me, and she became my mother. When she decided she would work in Japan, she took me with her, and I came here when I was 7. It was Aug. 13, 1993.
MS: Did you have any concerns then?
SR: I enrolled at Shiki Daisan Elementary School, a public school in Shiki, Saitama Prefecture (north of Tokyo), from the second term of second grade. I came in on a three-month holiday visa, so I was treated as an exchange student. The first thing that surprised me was that there were boys in the classroom. In Iran, where many people are Muslim, boys and girls study in separate schools until they reach university. I was also perplexed about wearing bloomers that showed my legs during P.E. lessons.
There were also differences in the way we communicated in standard situations. TV shows from Japan were shown on Iranian TV, and I watched a few of them. There was Oshin, Captain Tsubasa, Triton of the Sea, and Mito Komon. But they were all dubbed into Farsi, so I just thought everyone in the world spoke Farsi. In Iran, we speak using big hand and mouth movements, and it's like we're singing. Japanese people don't tend to change their facial expressions too much when conversing, so at first I was scared because I thought they were angry.
MS: Did you manage to integrate at school?
SR: My classmates would all gather around my desk, and they'd try to communicate with me using gestures. They'd shout "Sahel" and then give me a thumbs-up and say "Good" in English. But, in Iran, a thumbs-up doesn't mean good at all; it's a gesture used to demean another person. Whenever someone would give me a thumbs-up with a smile, I'd think they were being rude to me, and I'd feel low.
But then I also did things that upset everyone. In Iran, when we want to say "Hey" to get someone's attention, we make a kind a clicking sound with our tongue. When I did it when trying to make friends, the other children would get the impression that I had a bad attitude, or that I wanted a fight, and gradually people kept their distance from me. In class photos from the time, I'm standing on the edge looking down. I didn't have a place where I felt comfortable. I didn't understand a thing going on in classes, and at first I felt like I'd been abandoned there.
MS: According to a 1993 survey by the education ministry, the number of children "in need of Japanese language instruction" in elementary, junior high and high schools was reportedly around 10,450. That number is a fifth of today's figures. With no educational framework in place, who did you learn Japanese from?
SR: My school principal. He was a kind, short teacher with glasses. He couldn't bear to see me the way I was, and told me to come to his office. There, during the mornings until midday, he would teach me Japanese one-to-one. We didn't use a textbook. For example, we would turn on a tap and touch the water, and I would mimic his pronunciation of the word for water. Through that method, I learned five new words each day.
The principal treated me as a friend. He would say, "I'm your friend. Wouldn't it be good if we were able to talk to each other?" I felt like I wanted to speak with him more, too, so I went on absorbing more words. Like with riding a bicycle, being taught how to pedal is important. No matter how many times you fall over, if you know how to pedal you can take off again. As I showed people I was trying to communicate with the words I'd learned, even though I was making mistakes, my classmates started walking home with me after school. After about three months, I wrote about my experience with a jump rope. We had been on a field trip, and what had left an impression on me was when we all enjoyed doing this huge jump rope activity as a class.
MS: If your principal hadn't taught you Japanese, what do you think would have happened to you?
SR: I don't think I'd have come to love Japanese people. I wouldn't have been able to make friends, and I'd have probably gone on misreading things as bullying. With my principal's lessons, Japanese went from being something I perceived as a scary language to a polite and warm one. Language is a bridge that connects people.
If from the start I hadn't been able to go to school, my life wouldn't have turned out the way it has. When we came to Japan, my mother was married, but I didn't get on well with my stepfather and they divorced. We were chased out of our one-room apartment in the middle of winter, and for two weeks I went to school while living in a park.
A school cook found out about our situation, and invited us to her house and gave us something to eat. She also asked a lawyer to help us apply for a visa that would mean we could stay in Japan, and even found work for my mother. If she hadn't been there, we wouldn't have escaped that park, and maybe have become people staying illegally.
When I was going to elementary school, the school got my textbooks, exercise books, notebooks, and pencils together for me. They even got me a school bag. For a foreigner who has just arrived in Japan, prices here are very high. It's at the level where you have to think about buying a single can of juice. The principal and the others accepted us, and saved us. For that reason, now I feel like I want to give back to them, and as one way of doing that I continue to visit child welfare facilities and support refugees.
MS: It's been more than 25 years since you entered that school, and in that time the number of foreign children coming to Japan has risen, but more than 10,000 of them are in "unsupported" situations where they don't get the Japanese language education they need. What kind of support do you think would be best?
SR: If they attend classes while still not understanding the words, they'll never get the knowledge they're meant to. First, the important thing is to secure school courses focused on Japanese language teaching. When they go home, there's no one who can explain their homework to them, and they don't always have people in the neighborhood looking out for them, so the school needs to provide some kind of comprehensive framework, I think.
MS: Is there anything you want to say to the foreign children living in Japan today?
SR: Living in a country with a different language and culture to your own comes with a lot of struggles. The children working hard in the middle of all that can't really be open about their worries and pain precisely because they are working hard on it. I was bullied when I was in junior high school, and there were times I thought I wanted to kill myself, but to my mother, who worked morning to night in a factory until she was exhausted, I would just lie and say, "School was fun."
What I can say from that experience is that you don't have to pretend to be strong. I learned afterwards, but in truth my mother also had her own concerns about living in Japan. If you really show your parents and the people around you your weakness, then by sharing your troubles, maybe a feeling that you can overcome them together will emerge.
Profile: Sahel Rosa
Born in Iran in 1985, she started her entertainment career when she was in high school, and made her radio debut on FM station J-Wave. Her performance in the short film "Cold Feet" won her the Best Lead Actress in a Foreign Language Film award at the 6th Milan International Filmmaker Festival. She is a goodwill ambassador for an international nongovernmental organization which aims to find all children a home, and she works to provide support and outdoor classes for children across the globe.
(Interview by Yuka Narita, City News Department)