Dr. Avnish Jolly, 18th January, 2009 :The Aizu-Wakamatsu International Association, or AWIA was founded about 12 years ago in an effort to: provide assistance to all foreign nationals living in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu (Fukushima Prefecture, Japan) and promote exchange between all citizens, regardless of nationality. From its outset, the association has been a hub in the community, providing a place for foreign nationals to meet and network, as well as serving as an international educational resource for Japanese citizens.
It is comprised of five staff members, three of whom are Japanese, one of whom is Chinese, and one of whom is American. As surprising as it sounds, these five people go about serving mainly some 700 non-Japanese nationals living in and around the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture, Japan. Some of its services include: translation, interpretation, counseling, promotion of international relations at the community level, and coordination of exchange programs and seminars. AWIA also offers opportunities for all citizens—regardless of nationality—to meet and strengthen relations with each other and the community at large through various events and volunteer activities. The association currently has around 600 members.
In December we interviewed B. Indi Gueyser, a staff member at the Aizu-Wakamatsu International Association. In this issue we’ll explore a bit more about the AWIA as a whole, and introduce the rest of its staff.
Mrs. Ma, the native Chinese speaking Coordinator of International Relations, is a people person. With a sharp sense of direction, purposeful organization, and friendly manner she is a pillar of the AWIA. She not only offers a wealth of information concerning events and activities in the city, but is responsible for maintaining the Japanese part of the AWIA’s web-site. She not only speaks Chinese, Japanese, and a little English, but is also currently learning Korean.
Mr. Suzuki is the teacher recruitment coordinator, responsible for the organization and assignment of English language instructors to public elementary schools. Communicating between the city Board of Education, the schools, and the instructors is no easy task to be sure, but he handles his responsibilities with practiced ease learned from experience.
Mrs. Oguma has been with the AWIA from its very outset. As its administrative head, her 12 years of experience make for strong leadership, and knowledgeable decisiveness in any situation. She speaks Japanese, English, and is learning Korean.
Mr. Kobayashi is the association manager. He is a personable chap with not only the gift of the gab, but a sense of humor to match. His lighthearted approach helps soften the AWIA’s environment and makes it a welcoming place for all.
We asked the staff to tell us the AWIA’s goals for 2009. Heading the list were: communication, event planning, community outreach, and attracting new members.
The first challenge is communication. “We need to make our presence known to and felt by the community at large,” said Mr. Suzuki when asked of this year’s goals. Though the AWIA was formed nearly twelve years ago, regularly sponsors Japanese language classes, conducts international understanding classes in the local schools, and hosts a yearly international themed festival, there are still many people who are unaware of its existence. Though some of this may simply be the result of disinterest, with wider knowledge of its existence, the association would be better able to make its services available. “We have a lot of potential, but we need to make more use of it,” says Suzuki. Awareness of the AWIA and its services could also potentially mean an increase in AWIA members.
Language is another important, yet difficult aspect of communication. At first glance this seems obvious, but given a bit more consideration, it is a vital issue. When one chooses to live in another country or culture, knowledge of that country or culture’s language is important. Naturally, a certain command of the respective language is necessary to function in society. This becomes an essential issue for the AWIA because it can only help people as far as it is able to understand their needs. There are nearly 700 non-Japanese nationals in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu alone, representing over 20 countries and a combination of languages. “Between the five of our staff members we are limited to knowledge of Japanese and usually one other language. We must always face the reality that we are unable to assist those who are not only unable to use Japanese, but who also speak a language we don’t understand,” says Mrs. Oguma. “What do we do when someone comes and only speaks Indonesian?” she elaborated by referring to the city’s small Indonesian population. Other staff members also expressed concern with communication difficulties. “I can handle Chinese or Japanese, but I find myself stumped very quickly when it comes to English,” says Mrs. Ma. This is normally where AWIA’s “Language Volunteer Group” would come to the rescue, but unfortunately member numbers have been dropping.
One way to interact with local residents is through activities. Some of the AWIA’s typical annual activities include its spring bowling party, cherry blossom viewing party, and its World Tour Workshop and Discussion series. Yet deciding which activities would not only engage the most people, but also best serve the entire community, (not to mention deciding types of activities to begin with) is always a challenge. “We like to have fun events and everyone likes to have fun, but issues of international relations sometimes require seriousness. We’d like to be able to provide a space to talk about issues such as economy, discrimination, legal issues, and immigration to the community at large also,” said Mr. Gueyser. “Meeting with people from all walks of life is very enjoyable, but it’s very hard to please everyone in this line of work,” added Ma.
Volunteer groups are another way to involve and interact with the community. The AWIA currently has several volunteer groups which meet each month. Members of these groups offer presentations and explanations about Japanese culture, teach Japanese language, translate and interpret, and support foreign exchange relationships. As AWIA volunteers, Aizu-Wakamatsu locals have the chance not only to learn about different cultures and countries, but also—albeit indirectly—about the many challenges one faces living and working abroad. Conversely, non-Japanese nationals have the opportunity to learn about Japan, interact with their fellow community members, and teach about their country/culture.
In the past ten years, Japan has found its population of immigrants increase sizably. As such, community schools must provide education to both immigrant children and Japan-born children of immigrants. Transition to life in a new country for an adult is challenging enough, but often the challenges that face children are overlooked. One way to help is to provide a space for these children to meet and interact with immigrant peers. Though the population of immigrant children in the western part of Fukushima Prefecture is comparatively less than the central and eastern regions, the AWIA hopes to continue community outreach by creating just such a support space. “It is important that these children are made to feel not only that they belong here, but that they are valuable assets to the community,” says Oguma. “There are various reasons people come to Japan. Though many adults come of their own free will, children usually have little say in the matter. I’d like the AWIA to be able to help all people who have come to live here appreciate and enjoy life here.”
What ever the year may hold for the Aizu-Wakamatsu International Association, you can be sure they’ll meet it in stride.