Summarized by Yanagawa Tomoki
Jesuit Social Center staff
The Jesuit Social Center, in collaboration with St. Ignatius Church, is holding a series of seminars in 2018 under the theme “Christian diagnosis of actual Japan”. This article is a resume of the proposals shared by 3 lay panelists at a symposium held on May 16, 2018.
I am a graduate of the Economics department at Sophia University. Since graduation I dedicated my time supporting foreign residents and refugees in Japan. The origin of my motivation was encounters with professors and priests of Sophia University, in particular Professor Bonet. At the time, foreigners living in Japan were required to submit to mandatory fingerprinting when they officially register. Having considered that this process was discriminatory treatment, Professor Bonet refused fingerprinting while maintaining his university post despite becoming an overstayed non-regular resident. Before graduating from the university I attended Professor Bonet’s seminars on social problems faced by Koreans in Japan as well as issues faced by Okinawans and Minamata disease patients, etc. In addition, I have also visited such groups which deepened my experiences in the seminar sessions. These past experiences have since become linked to my actual work.
During the 90’s, many foreigners entered Japan which saw a growth in the number of non-regular residents and overstayers. When I graduated from the university at that time and became employed with an NGO, Japan was witnessing a shrinking labor force which became an opportunity for many from Asian countries that entered Japan with a tourist visa and worked as they overstayed. There were about 300,000 of them and, at the time, I felt that Japanese society showed much tolerance to accept them.
While taken for granted with little respect, vulnerable migrants from Asia experience unpaid wages, unjust layoffs, or refused admissions to hospitals after an accident, constant movement from one place to another, culminating to human rights violations. Nevertheless at the same time, people answered the call to assist them.
In those days, Catholic parishes were filled with Filipino/as and Latin Americans. The Episcopal Commission for Social Issues of the Catholic Bishops’Conference of Japan published a message “Toward the Kingdom of God beyond Borders (1993).” Progressing further than Japanese society, the Church in Japan tried to form multicultural and multinational communities.
In the second half of the 90’s I worked for almost 7 years in the Solidarity Center for Migrants (SOL) within the Yokohama diocese which had Latin American, Philippine, and Korean Desk. I worked together with individuals from a variety of nationalities and ethnic cultures and felt enriched by connecting with them.
It is a fact that human rights violations occur within our society, ranging from refusing to provide the same social acceptance of foreigners to the denial of guaranteeing equality. Many people whom I met at the SOL and at the KALAKASAN―Migrant Women Empowerment Center were migrants that married a Japanese partner and were seeking assistance from of acts of domestic violence and are receiving assistance to survive in Japan. Due to my activities and since I was not personally attached to any Japanese community, I felt that I was given an opportunity to experience how to be able to break through the closed nature of Japanese society.
I think that this type of positive perspective will provide great help in contemporary Japanese society. During the 90’s, Japanese society reacted with tolerance towards foreign overstayers remaining in Japan. However, I feel that because of a series of simultaneous terrorist acts in the United States, terrorist surveillance, and rejection of migrants―in other words chauvinism―have spread all over, affecting Japanese society as well. The multinational community where I work with has the power to break through such barriers. Since the members come from diverse backgrounds, this group enjoys an enriching vision wider than the demands of uniformity in Japanese society.
Another characteristic is that since we are Catholic based with a Christian outlook, I feel that our values are different from the closed and exclusive vision that seems the norm today. The chauvinistic exclusion of migrants is on the increase, creating the image that Japanese are different from foreigners. In fact, the situation has not improved for the last 25 years, instead it has worsened. Searching for a solution, as it is written in “Reverence for Life: A New Look”, “It is important to respect each person. Before God all of us are equally important. Human dignity and rights are equal to all”. This Catholic teaching is important for Japanese society.
Japan refuses almost all refugees and the situation is appalling. Last year about 19,000 applied for refugee status with only 20 granted asylum. No matter how much they plea for protection, Japanese society refuses them. I feel it is in this context that Catholic-inspired public statements must often be expressed.
I always commute to a small church in Yokohama and regularly teach Science and Moral Ethics at Eiko Gakuen Jesuit Middle and High School. Starting next year, we will teach moral education which has me researching textbooks sent to the school from 8 different publishers in order to select which one to adopt. The textbooks are full of very good stories such as one from the life of Mother Teresa. All the teaching materials are filled with beautiful accounts but the conclusions are also included to induce the students. In fact, everything comes to a kind of a clearly guided imposition to the schools.
A different matter concerns the Guiding directory of 20 different subjects. Everything is offered decided. For this subject these teaching materials, for the other one those teaching materials. In addition, there is also a subject called “As a Japanese citizen…” What is that!? …As Ms. Yamagishi has already mentioned, currently in Japan we have so many non-Japanese children enrolled in schools.
In my school we do not follow a method of imposing on children a whole set of moral values, instead we let each child select what they think if it suits them. Examining the textbooks, I again happened to think how terrible it will be to have one pattern of morality imposed on the children all over Japan.
I am also an adviser to the soft tennis club and during the matches, I meet with young industrious teachers of public schools who most probably do not have free time to study the teaching materials. When told to teach morals, most schools will probably use the given textbooks to impose on the children the content as it appears. Moreover, they will evaluate by the written text. I am very much afraid of that.
“Time is greater than space” is a strong statement of Pope Francis. “Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them link in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return” (Evangelii Gaudium no. 223). Surely our society is characterized by many evil incidents, but I believe thinking long-term is heading in a right direction. If we work little by little and taking our time, we can realize that we live continually growing ahead without returning. Is not giving us hope? There are many depressing issues that seem very difficult to solve such as the plight of migrants or those concerning moral education. Nevertheless I think that our actions lead us to take time without despair.
First of all, let’s not rush ourselves. Since we have a body, heart, and soul, I think it is essential for us to properly eat and care about our health. This year I celebrate the 30th wedding anniversary with my wife who has prepared my lunches every time. I feel that the daily lunch is my strongest support.
The school where I work at is full of affluent families yet I often hear of children who buy their dinner in a convenience store and dine alone at home while others have dinner in a family restaurant. How to think about it? Yet those children are able to eat while many others do not have food as poverty is certainly a real problem and something has to be done to solve it. I think it is important that everybody has enough food to eat and can enjoy having enough.
After graduating from the university, I began in April working as a member of the society. As for myself, I am still socially inexperienced and it is not yet possible for me to diagnose the present society in Japan. I thought to myself, “what could I say about this theme as a young woman and a lay person?” I am parishioner of St. Ignatius Church in Tokyo and have been involved in teaching junior & senior high school students in the church, and as a leader for five years until two years ago. I have finished leading high school classes and now I am, little by little, participating in the activities of a youth group.
As Mr. Yagishita has just talked about meals, I would also like to talk about “Stella Kids Café,” an activity I have started about two years ago for school students who are left alone at home during dinner time. My idea was to invite them to our church, prepare meals together, and dine together.
Actually, the purpose of this activity is to find ways to solve the problem of children returning home alone and are accustomed to eating meals with no one else around with food that is unhealthy. In Japanese we call them “Ko meals”. The Japanese words that start with “Ko” have a peculiar meaning, like eating individually (Kobetsu), food from convenience (Konbini) stores, food from the refrigerator (reizouko) and warmed up, and children (Kodomo) eating alone. Our Stella Kids Café offers the children better ways to eat together serving them a common meal and at the same time sharing conversations and a place to stay together. That way we try to eliminate the loneliness experienced by many children who usually cannot enjoy a peaceful family dinner with their parents because they are working in the evenings and usually return home late at night.
Participating in this, I remembered the first Christians in the history of the Church who were accustomed to sharing the same food, eating from the same table, breaking the loaves of bread they shared, and praying together. Such was the origin of early Christian communities. I thought about acting somehow in a similar way to spread the Gospel. Nevertheless, I feel myself still grasping for the way.
The children coming to St. Ignatius Church seem like they belonged to wealthy families. Indeed they attend private schools of high educational standards or well-known famous schools, yet many suffer from heartbreak. There are many children who seek a safe place in church because of the bullying they suffer in school and the lack of mutual understanding with their parents. As church school leaders, we are conscious of such situations and inform them that our church is the home of everybody and it is always open for them any time they desire to come. Therefore it is our duty to serve the children coming every week to learn in the church school.
However, as a student volunteer I was worrying about how could I support those children without knowing steeping deeper into their situations with school and family since I do not have the ability to assume legal responsibility. I realized that, aside from our contact with the children, it is necessary for us establish a system to also request assistance from the church and to not do it only by ourselves because of our limited abilities. There are probably medical professionals, counselors, and teachers among the members of this church. When I did not know whom I should ask for help when I was in trouble, I decided to inform the parishioners about the needs we had through the monthly church bulletin “Magis.” To my surprise, we received responses and the number of people willing to help us increased. Thus I learned it is very important to raise the voice asking for help from outside my circle.
The following year after finishing my task as a church school leader, I was able to start “Stella Kids Café” and “Stella Study Room” as ex-leader, which is a church activity that link adults and children by inviting schoolchildren to study and enjoy snacks together at the library room in the church center.
My first contact to Church was when I was 17 years old. At the time I felt sick and looked for someone who I could talk about my disease and worries as I could not confide those to my family and friends. Then I decided to go to church where I understand that it is open for those children who are really suffering and feel lonely too. Yet I am afraid whether ordinary people and children are aware of that in their daily life.
In Japan many people do not have any proper religion and as their children cannot find advisers to consult their troubles there is no other way but to keep their suffering to themselves. The church is open to children in need but our challenge is how to convey that to them.
And concerning religious practices, we cannot forcibly impose religious beliefs on people. To promote the encounter of children or adults with God and their relationship with the Church, one has to wait for the right time to do it. When we pray that God shows us the timing to encounter him, will we notice it?
I was given a chance to join the World Youth Day by St. Ignatius Church and was able to connect with the group Ecumenical Project, the Catholic Radio & Internet Program, and other several groups through our church youth activities. Because of that, I thought it is important to prepare a liaison website connected beyond the church as a network for children. It is necessary for people who cannot come to church and need help to have a place where they can present their needs by searching on the internet.
I am lucky that I could receive such blessings and support in my present activities but if I did not know the existence of the Church I wouldn’t have found my way. Because my parents are Christians I tried to go to church when I was in trouble. People can also have the opportunity to visit a church when events are organized there. This is why it is important to inform outsiders about events taking place in the church to let people know that the church is always open to the public, inviting everybody to participate.
As a layperson what I can do is to go where God shows and calls me and to stay there, raising my voice to those outside the church.