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Vietnamese nun opens 2nd temple in east Japan to shelter struggling trainees amid COVID

Thich Tam Tri, center front, chants a prayer to celebrate the completion of Tochigi Daionji temple in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, on Nov. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Naoto Takeda)

NASUSHIOBARA, Tochigi -- A Buddhist temple that aims to be a refuge for Vietnamese technical interns and others who have lost their jobs and are barely getting by amid the coronavirus pandemic has been completed in this east Japan city.

    The temple Tochigi Daionji was established by 43-year-old nun Thich Tam Tri, who also engages in similar efforts to offer food and shelter to those in need at a temple north of Tokyo in Honjo, Saitama Prefecture. The number of Vietnamese people who have taken refuge in the temple at Saitama amid the pandemic has tripled in a little under four years. Tam Tri commented, "An increasing number of Vietnamese people in Japan are having a tough time as they have nowhere to go. I'd like the temple to offer support as a sort of sanctuary for these individuals."

    Vietnamese people are seen cleaning up trash scattered in a garden in preparation for the establishment of Tochigi Daionji temple in this photo provided by the temple.

    Tam Tri, who is the head of a Buddhist group that supports Vietnamese nationals, opened the Daionji Temple in the Saitama prefectural city of Honjo in January 2018. The nun had previously offered temporary protection for Vietnamese nationals who in spite of coming to Japan under the country's technical intern program, lost their living base following the bankruptcy of companies that accepted them or other unfortunate events. Tam Tri offered support so that these individuals could return to their home country. However, following the global spread of the coronavirus, flights between Japan and Vietnam were suspended one after the other, and there was a sudden rise in individuals that sought the temple's assistance as they could not go back to their hometowns. Though the temple accommodated only around 20 people at the time of its establishment, around 60 to 70 people are staying at the facility.

    As the temple became cramped and activities were on the verge of reaching their limit, Michio Tomita, 72, a resident of the Tokyo suburban city of Kodaira who heard of the dire situation from a mutual acquaintance, offered to provide a house he owns in the city of Nasushiobara in Tochigi Prefecture further north of Tokyo. Tomita, who ran a paint coating company for a long time, said he saw Vietnamese technical interns working hard at the electric appliance makers that were his clients. "I was moved that young people were throwing themselves at the work with their utmost effort in a foreign country. If such youth are having a hard time, I thought that I wanted them to make use of the house," he said.

    The two-story house became abandoned after the resident at the time passed away about two years ago. It consists of one spacious room with 10 tatami mats' worth of space, equivalent to about 18 square meters, and six other rooms, but the floor and walls were worn out. Though the garden was overgrown with trash scattered around, after one month spent cleaning up and renovating the place, the new temple was brought to completion.

    Ho Van Kha, 27, who helped with renovation work, was one individual who turned to Daionji Temple in Saitama in the summer of 2020. Although he had worked as a trainee at a factory making automobile parts in the Aichi prefectural city of Toyota following his arrival in Japan in June 2018, he apparently lost his job because of the coronavirus pandemic. He became unable to go on working as a trainee and switched to a "designated activities" visa, which is a status granted to technical interns who lose their jobs due to their employers' financial difficulties, or who cannot easily return to their home countries because of the spread of the virus. Van Kha, who now works in Gunma Prefecture, spoke of the temple's significance, saying, "While there are many kind Japanese people, I was relieved to find a place where Vietnamese people can spend time together while helping each other out."

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, a total of 448,053 Vietnamese nationals were living in Japan as of the end of December 2020, over 10 times the figure recorded 10 years ago. A total of 7,999 Vietnamese nationals reside in Tochigi Prefecture, and in 2019, Vietnamese surpassed Chinese as the largest foreign group living in Japan. The prefectural government's international section said, "Many of them are believed to be technical interns."

    Tam Tri was raised in a single-mother household in a farming village in Vietnam, and became a nun at age 7. She studied the Japanese language at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, and came to Japan in 2001 to do research on Buddhism. The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 drove her to start efforts to assist Vietnamese people living in Japan. At the time, Tam Tri was working toward a doctoral degree at Taisho University, but decided to head with others to the disaster-hit areas on three buses and supported Vietnamese people who were suffering from the calamity.

    Since the earthquake and tsunami disasters, Tam Tri has been offering a place to eat and sleep for the people of her country who are suffering in Japan. She has also partnered with the Vietnamese Embassy in Japan to collect dead bodies of Vietnamese people who have passed away in Japan, contact the bereaved families, and be involved in funeral services. While individuals have died because of various causes, including sickness and accidents, the nun said that in the past few years, among those mourned, five or six people every year have taken their own lives. She lowered her voice, and said, "This may be due to the influence of stress due to life in a foreign country amid the coronavirus crisis."

    On Nov. 19, a sign that reads "Tochigi Daionji" was set up in front of the house, whose renovation was completed. Tam Tri looked up at the sign, which was gleaming under lights, and said, "There may be many other fellow countrymen who are placed in a tough situation. For such individuals, even if they're driven into a corner, I hope they can rush into the temple, by viewing it as a home that they can ultimately turn to."

    (Japanese original by Naoto Takeda, Utsunomiya Bureau)

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