A mix of Japanese and foreigners gather at some small tables near the window, all leaning toward the center talking intently. A giant paper mache globe stands in one corner of the sun-filled room and an entire wall behind the water cooler overflows with announcements in English, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Arabic, and French. They promote workshops and events on everything from legal aid to kabuki classes and learning to cook German food. A bookshelf holds a selection of disaster-ready food packs, and a small meeting room is full of volunteers talking, planning, and more often than not, smiling. Another room hosts children of varying ages playing games, studying, or talking with Japanese and foreign volunteer caregivers. This busy little spot brimming with smiles, laughter and information is the Musashino International Association (MIA).
Part of the Tokyo International Communication Committee, MIA is one of twenty associations scattered throughout the Tokyo Metropolitan area that offer everything from Japanese classes, to disaster training, to concerts and international fairs, all aimed at creating a multicultural city.
“Our aim is to help people feel safe and comfortable in a diverse community. Many of our volunteers have lived abroad at some point – Europe, the United States, Africa and Cambodia, for example—and they know what it feels like to be a foreigner,” says Kyoko Tamura, a coordinator with MIA.
According to figures released in March 2016 by the Justice Ministry, there are 2.2 million long-term and permanent foreign residents living in Japan with more than 400,000 in Tokyo. For many of them, international associations are the first real bridge to Japanese culture, language, and daily life. Tamura believes it makes a tangible difference.
“When I tell people that I’ve also lived abroad, that I understand their culture, they quickly change and relax if I share my experience with them,” she says.
International associations in Japan were established in 1988 in all 47 prefectures and their major cities as part of a government effort to improve diversity in Japan at a grassroots level. Funded by local city governments, the associations also come under the umbrella of the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), a group whose work includes the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, Sister City initiatives, and international exchanges.
Services vary from association to association, but all have the mission to help integrate foreigners into their communities. Most offer language classes and events throughout the year, while others, like MIA, organize everything from disaster preparedness, to cooking, to legal aid workshops. Some offer programs that let university exchange students spend time in a Japanese home to share their food and experience daily life. Others offer tutoring sessions or short trips to places around the community to help people new to Japan integrate more easily.
The associations, though, aren’t only for foreigners. Efforts to reach out to Japanese residents are also an important part of the grassroots efforts. Cooking classes, international festivals, and visits to local schools by foreign residents to share their culture, religion, and traditions bring people together.
“International associations build connections. Maybe some Japanese residents have never talked to foreign people or do not approach them, but they are still curious about a cooking class. Once they have that experience, they become more open and friendly. It starts a stronger relationship in the community,” said Tamura. “That helps in emergencies and disasters, but it’s even more important for everyday life for everyone.”
Finding an International Association
Tokyo International Communication Committee (TICC)
A website listing all twenty international associations in Tokyo along with links to other useful resources.
Yokohama Association for International Communication and Exchanges (YOKE)
Established in 1981, YOKE offers a wide variety of language classes, events and services.
Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR)
A government organization working with local communities, businesses and groups to facilities international exchange and relationships.