The Japanese Group of Private Assistance to Vietnam (JAPA VIETNAM) is a citizens' group with about 300 members that has its liaison office in our Social Center. Japa Vietnam celebrates this year its 10th anniversary of assisting self-supported projects of grass root Vietnamese citizens. About 30 different places in Vietnam have received over 35million yen during the past 10 years. I introduce here the short history of this small NGO that uses a yearly budget of about 3million yen.

All Started at a Tempura Dinner

Right after the Vietnam War an economic zone was opened in Cuchi, in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City where several Catholic Religious had opened a rural commune. In May, 1990 two "Japanese" met each other there. They were Ishimoto Akemi and Ando Isamu, the founders of Japa Vietnam.

Ishimoto Akemi, a photographer, visited Vietnam for the first time in 1989, as a member of an observation tour of Vietnam, organized by Japan's UNESCO Asian Cultural Center. She was strongly captivated by Hue, the old capital, in central Vietnam and by Hoi Anh. The following year Ishimoto visited Vietnam again, this time by herself alone. Located in Ho Chi Minh she went to the countryside for outdoor photographing and got accustomed to visiting Cuchi, a place she liked very much. She decided one day to entertain everybody there with Japanese tempura, but unable to find wheat flour she decided to cook it with dogtooth violet starch. Then, she heard that a Japanese person from Japan was also visiting the farm and worried much, fearing that tempura cooked with dogtooth violet starch was not going to be a real Japanese dish. The Japanese visitor was Ando Isamu.

Ando paid his first visit to Vietnam in 1971, during the Vietnam-American War, to attend a regional meeting in Saigon. Two years later he visited Vietnam again with 20 participants of an Asian Exchange Program, organized by the Asian Relations Center of Sophia University (Tokyo) of which Ando was the director at the time. As a result of the workshop some of the participants voiced their willingness to cooperate in the reconstruction of war damaged Vietnam. In 1974 the Asian Relations Center sent a team of 6 volunteer technicians to Vietnam and conducted there a technical training course for electric repair and motorbike mechanics. About 77 youth attended the 5-week course that could not be continued the following year due to the aggravation of the war.

Right after the liberation of Vietnam in 1975, the exodus of Vietnamese Boat People became a big international problem. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), established in 1980, started its assistance to the Indochinese refugees located in Thailand. Spanish-born Ando, who became a naturalized Japanese at the time, took the initiative to assist Boat people and displaced persons reaching Japan those days. In 1989, once the flow of refugees from Vietnam stopped, a Jesuit visited Vietnam looking for possibilities of former refugees to return. Ando received a detailed report from him, on December of the same year and realized that there were groups inside Vietnam that aimed at self-support action, at grass root levels. In May 1990, Ando paid a visit to Vietnam to bring funds collected in Japan from the beginning of the year and happened to meet Ishimoto there in Cuchi.

Birth of Japa Vietnam

In June 1990 Ishimoto returned to Japan with many requests for assistance from Ho Chi Minh City. She busied herself about looking for cooperation, but every place she went she was told, "forget about the whole matter". She did not know what to do, because nobody wanted to give a helping hand, and then she remembered Ando, the person she met in Cuchi. She visited one day our social center and said, "I'm just a house wife and I can't do anything, but I want to do something for the Vietnamese". To that Ando replied, "Let's do whatever we can", and then they decided to call friends and others for a public gathering to show the photographs and slides Ishimoto had taken.

The gathering took place on the 2nd floor of the social center. Out of the 20 participants, 7 or 8 showed interest in helping in future activities to assist Vietnamese people, and the group of Japa Vietnam took off. Incidentally I may remark that all the founding members, except Ando, were women.

By April 91 the long-awaited tabloid was published and with the printing of a pamphlet in July, full-scale fund raising began. In order that, as many staff members as possible could have first-hand experiences of Vietnam, the first Vietnam tour was organized in September, 1991. Two ladies together with Ishimoto visited the city of Ho Chi Minh to observe the projects already receiving assistance and others looking for international assistance. After spending 10 days in Vietnam, two persons returned to Japan, but Ishimoto remained there for 3 more months and moved energetically, around the southern region of the Mekong delta as well as the northern regions of the country. In December 1991, Ishimoto came back to Japan bringing along many films and mountains of requests for help.

A Grain of Wheat That Fell to the Ground

Ishimoto who had become rather seriously ill during her stay in Vietnam entered a hospital at the end of January, 1992, with symptoms of a cancer of the colon, and was operated on.

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At the beginning of March, she left the hospital and continued working for the realization of the projects she had brought from Vietnam, while taking painkiller pills. On May 12 she entered the hospital again and died on 27 May 1992, at the age of 51. Ishimoto had a strong love for the Vietnamese and their natural landscapes. In just 3 years, before she passed away, she left behind a strong image of her personality to the many people she met in Vietnam and in Japan. At the time of her death, we received a donation of 700,000 yen from her family and decided to start a fund to assist medical projects for the pediatric department of Cao Bang's public hospital so dear to her. We called it, "Akimi Fund".

After the decease of Ishimoto, Ando took the leadership of the volunteer group, Japa Vietnam. In fact, everyone was just a good-will volunteer. Through trial and error, the group looked after the administration of projects, for accepting and inspecting requests, bringing up to date the list of members and the book accounts, as well as looking for funds. At the beginning, we got financial assistance from Australian and German Jesuit sources and from Caritas Australia. Since 1991, a Japanese organization, the International Ladies Benevolent Society (ILBS), has, every year, funded some of our projects.

We keep special remembrances of the first funds received from ILBS. We received a grant to build a motorbike engine-repair center in Cuchi, but, since the Vietnamese government refused the permit to build to our counterpart there, we decided to return the grant. When we reflect about it now, we feel shame, nevertheless members of ILBS highly praised our honesty. Any way, little by little, Japa Vietnam got well organized.

Organized Division of Labor

Since 1993 Japa Vietnam organizes yearly tours to assisted programs in Vietnam and conducts open session reports to the public, publishes newsletters twice a year and thus continues fund raising campaigns. At the beginning, all programs were concentrated around the city of Ho Chi Minh, but gradually they spread all over the country. At present, we have programs in 10 different provinces, from Cao Bang in the north near Mainland China to Nghean, south of Hanoi, Binh Phuc by the Cambodian border, Binh Thuan, east of Ho Chi Minh and Soc Trang in the southern regions of the Mekong delta. The programs of assistance include rural roads, bridges and wells, construction of primary schools and clinics, farms, fishponds and pig raising. We cooperate in educational programs for ethnic minorities and children of patients with Hamsen disease, in the care of HIV/AIDS patients and volunteer activities for street children, for wheel chair disabled people, and to train medical staff and young mothers of ethnic groups in health education.

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The Japanese volunteers that support those activities come from many backgrounds. For instance, Miss T helps in the editing of the newsletters, but she says, "I'll never go to Vietnam, because that wouldn't fit the rhythm of my life". Mr. Y, a staunch cameraman from Hokkaido, who has been for 5 consecutive years to Vietnam since 1993, launched out "Hokkaido Japa Vietnam" and printed original postcards about Vietnam. He called a female photographer from Vietnam and organized a photo exhibition in Hokkaido. Miss O, who participated in the 92 Vietnam tour and became so totally fascinated by that country, that, from the following year, she stayed in Vietnam for 5 years teaching the Japanese language, always cooperating with Japa Vietnam. Miss S, who is residing in Ho Chi Minh and provides us with the latest news about the country. Mr. T, a Vietnamese living in Japan, who has been acting as interpreter during the yearly tours, since 1996, and provides Japa Vietnam with very valuable advice and information about the present situation there. Miss M, who for a long period conducted street fund raising, every day, at a JR station near her home, for 2 consecutive years. Finally, Mrs. H, a faithful participant of the tours to Vietnam who has now more detailed knowledge than Ando about the programs there, has visited that country every year, since 1992, even the year she was operated on and the year her husband passed away. Over 30 volunteers have been working with Japa Vietnam during the past years.

Requests for assistance have also grown. In contrast with a budget of 3million yen, the requests are usually double that amount, and in many instances they are 10 times over our possibilities. It is true that recently we receive large grants, not only from Japanese located groups like ILBS or rotary clubs, but also from Spanish NGOs or EU funds. Nevertheless we can not meet all the demands. We tend to be discouraged because of our powerlessness, but the vitality of the volunteers and the kind encouragement of all our supporters provide us strength to continue the work.

Did Vietnam really Change?

Japa Vietnam's involvement in Vietnam has continued for the past 10 years. In the mean time, there have occurred big changes in the country, especially in the economic fields. On the other hand, Vietnamese politics and ideology have largely remained the same. Naturally, programs assisted by Japa Vietnam are often affected by such realities.

Firstly, as a result of the introduction of the "doi moi" policies and the lifting of economic sanctions by the Americans, foreign capital flew to Vietnam and its economy developed fast. The development of Ho Chi Minh and other big Vietnamese cities has created an increase in social problems, like street children and prostitution, drugs and HIV/AIDS. Mr. V, a Vietnamese expert in these issues, writes in one of his letters that the government does not tackle those problems, and, as a result, small numbers of volunteers are often overburdened with such activities.

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On the other hand, the infrastructures of rural areas: clinics, schools, roads and bridges are in poor condition, because of lack of official funds. A Japanese scholar explains the actual social differences in Vietnam the following way: "The city of Ho Chi Minh could be compared to the city of Tokyo, but when you proceed to the outskirts you retreat to the life style of right after the 2nd World War. In the mountain side where there is no electricity people's lives are similar to pre-Edo times." This is why Japa Vietnam has concentrated its past assistance in the building of rural infrastructures.

Secondly, the return of Vietnam to the international community has provoked an increase in foreign assistance. Japan, for instance, re-started its ODA to Vietnam several years ago, and "The Vietnam NGO Directory 1999-2000", published recently says that, 271 international NGOs are now working in the country. Such NGOs are giving badly needed assistance to schools and welfare centers, because of lack of official funding, as I explained earlier.

NGOs, as well as religious groups, are not totally free in their activities, due to the strong rule of the communist party, the only officially approved political party. Thus, the government controls all foreign NGOs by obliging them to register. Even local religious groups are not free to run schools or welfare institutions, no other evangelization activities are allowed but strictly religious ones like masses or prayer meetings. The Catholic Church in Vietnam has a long tradition of education and welfare works, since the times of French colonization and, in places where there are many Catholics, the Church is much involved in building infrastructures together with other local citizens. Japa Vietnam is, thus, well related to many churches in Vietnam. They continue their activities, carefully weighting their relationship with government officials.

Buddhists as well as Christians are often arrested and detained. In Son La, home to various tribal minorities, the authorities forced Hmong Catholics to sign a certificate of apostasy, just last Christmas. Of course, foreign religious groups are still forbidden to enter Vietnam. On top of that, a high Vietnamese official has clearly stated that, "No human rights, local or foreign, organizations will ever be allowed." (See "The Human Rights 2000 World Report, edited by Human Rights Watch)

Future Cooperation to Vietnam

This small organization called Japa Vietnam continues working carefully in unison with the changing (unchanging?) larger Vietnamese society. We came to a decision on three main principles of action, after many hesitations.

  1. Assist the poorest people and communities unable to get cooperation from other sources.
  2. Relate to persons we know we can trust
  3. the extent of our assistance is regulated by our own limitations and those of our partners.

Japa Vietnam started from a meeting of Ando and Ishimoto in their passionate interest for Vietnam. The organization, for good or for bad, is based on personal, maybe too personal, relationships. From now on, Japa Vietnam will continue its activities entrusting its hope to grass-root Vietnamese citizens.


[We are preparing a special edition of "Chao Vietnam" to celebrate our 10th anniversary. This article quotes from special references written there by Ms. Ono Hiromi, with regard to Ms. Ishimoto. For further information on the matter, please contact Shibata Yukinori at our Jesuit Social Center]

[ From the Editor ]
Japa Vietnam will soon become 10 years old. This Bulletin will also reach its100th issue next year. It is a wonder that small organizations can survive in such a way. And yet, citizens' groups are different from bureaucracies and companies. But, if survival becomes the main goal, vitality withers. 10 more years, 100 more issues; we must renew!

(Shibata Yukinori)