Shizuyo Yoshitomi started a radio station to help immigrants
Ethnic minorities in Japan didn't have a reliable source of news in their own languages – such as what to do if an earthquake strikes.
KOBE, JAPAN — When Shizuyo Yoshitomi and her fellow volunteers launched a community radio station in the western port city of Kobe, in the aftermath of the devastation triggered by a major earthquake in Japan 20 years ago, their key priority was to give a voice to the voiceless.
The low-power FM station was established in one of the hardest-hit areas two months after a magnitude-7.3 temblor. Both volunteers and disaster victims lacked much-needed information following the quake, which killed more than 6,400 people, Ms. Yoshitomi recalls.
Many immigrants and ethnic minorities, who had difficulty understanding Japanese, were especially worried.
“We could only recognize the term ‘tsunami’ among the words blaring out from a police car,” recalls Roxana Oshiro, who came to Japan with her husband in 1991 from Peru. “We were shellshocked because we did not understand Japanese and did not understand whether a tsunami would hit the city or not. We wanted information in our language.”
The new station broadcast in five languages, including Vietnamese and Tagalog, a language widely spoken in the Philippines, from a makeshift studio in the city’s Nagata district.
Yoshitomi, who’s fluent in Spanish, took charge of programs in that language.
Nagata was home to a growing community of immigrants and ethnic minorities, many of whom were working at shoe or rubber factories there.
Yoshitomi, who then lived in another part of Kobe, arrived in Nagata two days after the quake. She was shocked to see “completely burned-out ruins,” she says.
Her friend’s church had burned to ashes, and the site had already been turned into a relief camp where injured residents were receiving medical treatment. Volunteers were busily providing other aid to those displaced by the quake.
Yoshitomi eagerly joined the other volunteers, mainly giving assistance to the non-Japanese residents.
Japanese citizens such as Yoshitomi flocked to Kobe neighborhoods to engage in volunteer activities at the same time as the government’s slow and inefficient response began to irritate many.
Most Japanese then were unfamiliar with the term “volunteer.” The concept of voluntarism had rarely been promoted in the country before the quake.
“It seems the meaning of the word ‘volunteer’ has changed ... since,” Yoshitomi says. Instead of meaning that people were working for no pay the word began to mean simply “voluntary behavior.”
Voluntarism is now woven into the fabric of daily life in Japan. Today about 200 volunteers are involved in the radio station, known as FMYY, which operates as a nonprofit organization and broadcasts in 10 languages. (YY or “wai-wai” in Japanese means “buzz-buzz.”)
The work of FMYY is valuable, Yoshitomi says. Vital information should be available in many languages so that those who don’t speak Japanese can become more involved in Japanese society. Their participation can provide fresh perspectives that most Japanese may not be aware of, she says.
Her argument comes at a time when some here are calling for Japan to accept more immigrants as it confronts a declining birthrate and a rapidly aging population.
A graduate of Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Yoshitomi had had few opportunities to speak Spanish outside of work. However, big changes came after the Japanese government decided in 1990 to grant special visas to Latin Americans of Japanese descent to help address labor shortages. That prompted an influx of immigrants from South American countries such as Brazil and Peru.
Yoshitomi, then a staff member at the Honorary Consulate-General of Bolivia in Kobe, was providing support to newly arrived immigrants, and she came to appreciate the different values and perspectives they offered.
In 1995 the earthquake made the predicament of minority groups who don’t speak Japanese more visible, leading many people in Kobe to finally recognize the city’s ethnic diversity, Yoshitomi recalls.
“I believe more people in Kobe became aware of the importance of diversity and minorities’ views after the quake,” she says. “This is very valuable to the city.”
Yoshitomi, who used to be a full-time homemaker, is involved in a number of mission-driven organizations in addition to her work at the FM radio station. She has established the nonprofit Multilanguage Center FACIL, which provides translation services, and the nonprofit World Kids Community, which supports education for minority children.
“Ms. Yoshitomi was the only Spanish-speaker whenever I came here to seek advice. So, I offered some help,” recalls Ms. Oshiro, who has been in charge of the Spanish language program at FMYY since 2000. “She put trust in me and encouraged me to work for the radio” project, says the mother of two children.
Oshiro also serves as the editor of Latin-a, a Spanish language magazine. Working with Yoshitomi “has been greatly beneficial to my child-rearing and our children’s education,” says Oshiro, whose older son now goes to a Japanese university.
Yoshitomi felt her groups’ activities weren’t being properly recognized by Japan’s academic community. So she decided to study for a PhD to provide a solid theoretical underpinning for her work.
“I also thought I would be able to learn what I had been unaware of” after 10 years working in the nonprofit sector, she says.
Today Yoshitomi, the mother of two grown children, has earned a doctoral degree at Kyoto University, one of Japan’s top schools, and is an associate professor at the Global Collaboration Center at Osaka University.
“My life has changed tremendously since the quake [in 1995]. I had never imagined I would earn a PhD,” she says.
“It was very difficult for her to complete her dissertation in only three years with a long commute while doing her job,” says Yukio Adachi, a professor emeritus at Kyoto University. “She inspired me as well as her fellow graduate students.
“She already had a wealth of hands-on experience, but she wanted to study theory. We then had very few students like her. She presented a new model,” says Dr. Adachi, who now teaches public policy at Kyoto Sangyo University.
In 2013, Yoshitomi received an award from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs for her contribution to international cultural exchanges and the introduction of Japanese culture to the world.
In 2011, after an earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, Yoshitomi flew to the region to support community radio stations there with help from the international charity Oxfam.
She also helped establish Bayanihan Kesennuma Radio in the city of Kesennuma, large parts of which were destroyed in the 2011 quake. (Bayanihan means “mutual assistance” in Tagalog.)
The radio program played a key role in helping the Filipino community after the disaster, she says.
To those who don’t speak Japanese, “just listening to their native language brings a sense of reassurance,” especially in a time of crisis, Yoshitomi says. The station has contributed to strengthening the Filipino community in the region and made it more visible, including attracting the attention of national news media.
While some Japanese still frown on the growing presence of other ethnic groups, “Uplifting a minority community is very important,” Yoshitomi says. It can “help make the entire society more resilient.”
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