Filipina members of the support group Hawak Kamay Fukushima (“Hold Hands Fukushima”) with some of their community provisions.
Photo courtesy of HFK
By David Tereshchuk*
August 6, 2012—Japan is often regarded as having one of the world’s most homogeneous populations. But the truth is more complicated than that. For many people, it was last year’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis that revealed the reality.
One effect of the response to the emergency was to shed light on the particular hardships faced by disaster survivors who are immigrants, many of whom had been isolated and to a large degree “invisible” before the catastrophe.
In the Fukushima area, where a badly damaged nuclear power station suffered meltdowns and released radioactive materials, there are thousands of non-Japanese families. Originating mainly in the Philippines, South Korea, China, and Thailand, in Japan they often live on society’s margins. Bringing emergency help to them in the wake of the disaster has alerted many in the wider population to the needs of these “hidden” communities.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is supporting a program that focuses on the role of immigrant women. UMCOR’s partners in this effort are the National Christian Council of Japan’s office for Japan Ecumenical Disaster Response (known as JEDRO), the Support Project for Non-Japanese Disaster Victims, and the Fukushima Immigrant Women’s Support Network.
Through the program, a thorough review is being conducted among immigrant households in Fukushima to understand fully the non-Japanese families’ needs. The project emphasizes employment-creation and self-reliance among Fukushima’s women immigrants.
One key element is a workshop program that brings together Japanese and immigrant women around practical issues of common interest—of which there turn out inevitably, though sometimes to each side’s surprise, to be many.
On the immigrant side, a group called Hawak Kamay Fukushima (hawak kamay means “hold hands” in the Philippines language, Tagalog) is especially active. “Once members have the information they need, they know what they need to do, and as a result they are calm and assured,” says Kathryn Goto, chair of HKF.
Hawak Kamay Fukushima conceived the initiative of a pre-school for children and of English classes for the women themselves—services meant to aid independence and employment.
The overall aim is to ensure better living conditions for immigrants and their fuller inclusion within Japanese society. And, though no one anticipates a repeat of the 2011 disaster, says Goto, “Next time around, we would be more prepared."
A gift to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450, will support communities like those in Japan that are building sustainable recovery after disasters.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic and a regular contributor to umcor.org.