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Japan aid agency volunteers stuck at home devise ways to support foreigners' studies

Participants in a Japanese lecture aimed at foreign students are seen outside Osaka Castle, in Chuo Ward, Osaka, on Nov. 29, 2020. (Mainichi/Sachiko Miyakawa)

OSAKA -- With overseas cooperation volunteers for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) forced to come home from their postings abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic, a group of them and others have begun holding lectures on Japanese in this west Japan city.

    With the volunteers, who would normally be dispatched to developing countries to help in a variety of fields, left unsure of when they will next leave Japan, they've turned to finding ways to continue their activism in their home country.

    On a Sunday at the end of November in 2020, a group of four volunteers and others serving as Japanese teachers, and three foreign students from Ethiopia and Thailand, came together at Osaka Castle Park in the city's Chuo Ward.

    The volunteers used simple Japanese to introduce the participants to the castle's history and the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Afterwards they also went for a walk around Tenjinbashisuji shopping street in Kita Ward.

    Volunteer Etsuko Morita, 50, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Until now we've been given a lot of help from people overseas, so I'd like even a little bit to help foreign nationals in Japan."

    Morita was expected to take up a position in El Salvador in Central America in April, but the move has been postponed. She has worked for 15 years as a Japanese teacher, and over 2016 to 2018 was sent by JICA to Uruguay as a volunteer, where she was involved in launching the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for foreign Japanese learners.

    She spoke about her aspirations, saying, "I felt the value of being involved in something that a single person can't do on their own. I want to give momentum to Japanese language education in El Salvador." With no decided time on when she'll be leaving Japan, Morita is awaiting her dispatch by doing part-time work and studying Spanish.

    In response to the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus, JICA began temporarily repatriating its volunteers from 76 countries at the end of March onward. As of Dec. 9, 554 people are in Japan awaiting a return to their posts, or dispatches to new ones.

    One of the volunteers who took part in the lecture in Osaka is a 31-year-old resident of the nearby city of Suita. They were brought back to Japan midway through an assignment in Uzbekistan. Since January 2019 they had been teaching lessons in Japanese and on the country's present situation at a university in Samarkand.

    After rushing back to Japan in April, they continued to try and develop people's interest in Japan by shooting videos on the streets of Osaka aimed at university students, and then sharing them on social media and by other means.

    Although they wanted to be sent out again, their period in Uzbekistan is set to end in January. "I wish things had turned out differently, but I want to use my experience in Uzbekistan to help students individually," they said. They added that they're now thinking about teaching conversational Japanese to foreign residents at a Japanese language school.

    According to JICA, volunteers in six countries including Vietnam and Thailand have already started returning. It's not known when activities will resume in other countries. The volunteers left waiting are receiving financial assistance, but there have reportedly been people who have left the program due to the protracted wait.

    Megumi Kawasaki, who has been involved planning Japanese language events with volunteers and others for JICA Kansai Center, told the Mainichi Shimbun: "I thought it would be good if we could create a space where foreign people studying Japanese and volunteers who feel they want to do something can come together. I want to keep looking at other opportunities to maintain people's motivation."

    (Japanese original by Sachiko Miyakawa, Osaka City News Department)

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