Social and Pastoral BulletinNo. 89Apr. 15, 1999

The Origin of Sophia Junior College Volunteer Home Tutoring

Rosa Maria Cortes
(Professor of Hadano Sophia Junior College)

Around 1985, the Hadano International Association (HIA) was established in Hadano. The purpose of this group was to gather together foreigners living in nearby areas and help them foster relationships among themselves and with Japanese people. Two or more times a year the HIA held meetings or parties inviting foreigners, their families and friends to spend time together to strengthen ties and friendship. A wide variety of nationalities and countries were represented each time. Most of the foreign participants were residents with either permanent or temporary visas (teachers, university or research students, spouses of Japanese, etc.). Sometimes they were friends on short visits to Japan. Many Japanese friends were invited and their presence was an essential part in the purpose of the Association: a better mutual understanding and the fostering of friendship between foreigners and Japanese.

But a tragic incident awoke us from that ideal dream. On February 8 1987, a 36 year-old Cambodian refugee living in Hadano. Bouy Mouem, killed his two daughters; (8 and 4), his son (6) and his wife (26). The tragedy shook everyone living in Hadano, and many other people throughout Japan. Until that day, we were not aware of the existence of refugees living so close to us. None of us knew of their hardships, their problems in trying to adjust to an unknown country and culture, and the struggle they underwent in their daily lives not being able to master a language they needed so much at all levels. But above all, they had been cut off from other foreigners living in the same city of Hadano. Except perhaps for their neighbors, and the City Hall where they were registered, nobody had any knowledge of them.
Some of the HIA members, upon hearing the news, rushed to the police to get more information about the refugees and Bouy Mouen. The next day some of us even went to the City Hall to make more inquiries. Shocked citizens joined efforts to win the cooperation of the government to create a venue and establish lines of communication with the local refugee community.

A volunteer group was soon formed, the "Indochina Refugees Friendship Association" (Indochina Nanmin to tomoni Ayumu Kai), to offer necessary help to all refugees in the area.

Then, at the refugees' request, in May 1987, volunteers started to give Japanese lessons every first and third Sunday of each month from 2:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon. Hadano City Hall provided facilities in the Culture Center and, later on, the Hadano Catholic Church, Sophia Junior College and private citizens, also cooperated in providing room for classes whenever it was necessary.

Thus, from this citizens volunteer group, Sophia Junior College Volunteer Home Tutoring was born. In the beginning, our students participated either as baby-sitters or as volunteer teachers in the Sunday classes. Soon they realized that this was not enough and volunteered to give evening weekly classes to parents and children at Sophia Junior College or at the Hadano Catholic Church. However, these classes had to be given late at night due to the parents working overtime. Children could not join them, and these lessons had to be stopped because the student volunteers themselves had to travel back home later than usual.
Because of these difficulties regarding time and place, the Sophia Junior College students began to demand some changes. They suggested that lessons for the children could be provided at their homes earlier in the afternoon when they returned from school. It was also just the time when our students finished classes, and on their way back home they could drop by the children's homes and help them with their homework and school assignments.

When those proposals were made to the families, the parents were enthusiastic. They were eager to welcome Japanese in their homes since they had seldom had that experience. Very few Japanese cared about them, neither had there been expressed willingness to become their friends or to provide help for the education of their children. Many of these children were having difficulties in adapting to Japanese society and had suffered from harassment and bullying from schoolmates or neighbors.

When Sophia Junior College students began Volunteer Home Tutoring in 1988, about seven families living in Hadano applied, and since then the number of applicants has kept increasing every year. From that first year up to now in 1998, about 43 families have applied, which means a total of 151 learners from those families.

Looking back at the fatal incident involving Bouy Moueil, it can be said that it hit our consciousness strongly. It helped to awaken many citizens' sense of remorse in not having been aware of the refugees' existence nearby, of ignoring them, and, in some cases, of harassing them.

After the tragedy, things changed quickly for the better. Many volunteer groups and organizations were formed at that time with the aim of never letting a thing like that happen again.
People regretted what had happened and have not forgotten what was said, during Bouy Mouem's trial, by the psychiatrist who had tested him at the court's order: The accused was in a state of paranoia due to the adverse circumstances that most refugees face when trying to adapt to an unknown environment. Also, poor government policy toward Indochinese refugees and Japanese narrow-mindedness were the direct causes of Bouy Mouem's dilemma.

People were also reflecting on how they could cooperate to improve the situation, about which the judge spoke in his verdict after he sentenced Bouy Mouem to 12 years imprisonment at hard labor, closing a trial that had lasted for four years and six months. The judge stressed in his sentence that, although recognizing that the crimes deserved the death penalty, consideration should be given to the fact that Bouy Mouem was in a weak psychological state of mind at the time of the murders. This situation was the result of the problems existing in Japan when they accepted Indochinese refugees and failed to offer them proper treatment and care. These events should provide cause for deep reflection on Japanese society's attitudes regarding refugees.

The Volunteer Home Tutoring Program in Sophia Junior College tried to respond to these issues and to counteract the closed-mindeness that triggered this and many other sad incidents by welcoming and caring for refugees in Japan.

[ Bouy Mouem is at present, in Cambodia. Having completed eleven years and ten months of imprisonment in Fuchu International Prison (Tokyo), he was deported by the Japanese Ministry of Justice in Japan on December 10, 1998. ]

Volunteering as a Home Tutor Has Changed my Life

The experience as a volunteer home tutor has helped me determine the course of my life. I visited Cambodian children for two years during my college days. Initially, I intended to help them with their study. However, I was treated with Cambodian sweets or meals each time I visited, heard about their culture and lifestyle, and was the one to be fascinated by the open and warm-hearted people of the families. I began to think of visiting their home country after graduation to see their culture for myself. I decided to visit Laos, where I had visited once during college, this time as a volunteer.

The Laotian refugees in Hadano taught me their language until my departure. They also referred me to a family to stay with. Having been supported by such kind-hearted people, I took off for Laos.

While I was there. I worked in an SVA (Sodo-shu International Volunteer Group) children's library making books and teaching children handicrafts and English. What struck me the most was the Laotian culture based on living together and caring for others. I experienced this through living with a family there.

After returning home, I have visited schools to talk about the Laotian culture and to report on my experience. I have recently started working on the counseling staff in a junior high school with many students of foreign nationalities.

The home tutoring that I casually started during school has directed me in my work and life-long objectives.

The Laotian culture still encompasses the notion of caring for others, something that we Japanese are neglecting. From now on, I would like many others in Japan to come to know this culture that has impressed me so strongly.

In addition to that, I would like the refugees to have stronger self-confidence, so as to be proud of their native culture.