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Children's cafeteria in Japan becomes melting pot as int'l students cook up tastes of home

A student from Indonesia, right, helps a child eat a Korean pancake in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, on April 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Ryo Endo)

MATSUYAMA -- An "international children's cafeteria," where foreign students cook their favorite foods from their home countries and serve up meals, opened in this west Japan city in March.

    This is a unique initiative in Japan that connects international students, who currently tend to be isolated amid the virus pandemic, to children so they don't have to eat alone. Foreign students have been suffering from harsh situations with fewer opportunities to interact with people than before because their schools have been closed and they cannot go back to their home countries. But through the cafeteria project they are developing bonds with the children and volunteer students.

    On a recent visit, the smiles of children surrounding a dinner table were seen through masks, and phrases such as "smells great" and "Masisseoyo" (a Korean word meaning "delicious") were heard in a showroom near central Matsuyama in early April. The menu consisted of Korean garlic chive pancakes and Korean spicy stir-fried chicken. A 22-year-old Korean student, who cooked the dishes with Japanese student volunteers, looked pleased as 3-year-old Riri Ishii said "delicious" after sampling the food.

    The international children's cafeteria is open once a week and around 50 people participate each time. Students from seven countries including South Korea, Indonesia, India and Vietnam cook their home countries' dishes, and children, who need support for reasons such as their parents being busy, gather to try the treats. The cafeteria has been operated under thorough coronavirus prevention measures, such as disinfecting hands, wearing masks and ventilating.

    Marie Yamase, a representative of the citizens group "Matsuyama Sakanoue Japanese Language School," is seen in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, on April 28, 2021. (Mainichi/Ryo Endo)

    The initiative was launched by Marie Yamase, 33, who represents the citizens group "Matsuyama Sakanoue Japanese Language School" in the city. Born in Ehime Prefecture, whose capital is Matsuyama, Yamase had worked for foreign nationals mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area in fields such as Japanese language education and life support, but returned to her hometown in 2020 because she "wanted to create places for foreigners in the local area." After hearing that "there are households where children are having dinner alone," she came up with the idea to establish the cafeteria as a place where international students and children can mingle.

    Many foreign students are feeling isolated amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    "I was lonely because I couldn't meet my family or friends over the past year," said a 31-year-old student from India, who came to Japan in September 2019. Though she enrolled at Ehime University in April 2020, all classes went online. Her classmates were only seen through computer screens. As she began to live by herself far away from home, she recalled, "I often stayed at home the whole day." She learned about the cafeteria through an email from the university. After attending an event there, she found many foreign students in situations similar to hers, and she could also share life information with others. "Most of all, I'm glad to have made many friends. It is also an opportunity to practice my Japanese," said the student.

    Though part-time work is an important source of income for international students, many lost their jobs due to the spread of infections. Yamase thought she wanted to support foreign students financially even if only a little bit. A local real estate company has provided the showroom on the first floor of its building for free for use as the cafeteria. As the eatery receives a subsidy from a foundation that tackles regional issues, it pays the foreign students as a small reward for their efforts in the kitchen.

    According to the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Japan Kodomo Shokudo Support Center Musubie, there were 4,960 cafeterias for children nationwide as of 2020. Rie Mishima, the PR representative at the organization, is paying close attention to the Matsuyama cafeteria, saying: "It is a new proposal that helps solve issues that international students face. Children's cafeterias can become a system that various local people can participate in."

    As the reputation of the international children's cafeteria has gradually grown, volunteers including local high school and university students have started to join events, helping to create an international melting pot. Yamase, who has been impressed by the solid response, said enthusiastically that she wants to further expand the cafeteria's activities, adding, "I want to create a space where both foreigners and Japanese people can deepen their connections and discuss things with each other right away in case something happens."

    The international children's cafeteria is open between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. every Wednesday on the first floor of Sanpuku Holdings' headquarters building in the city's Nakamura district. The cafeteria is slated to open on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from June. For more information, contact Yamase by phone at 090-8213-6209 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Ryo Endo, Matsuyama Bureau)

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