Yesterday I went to the meeting of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents (the home page is mostly in Japanese, but there are links to some English resources as well). This body was established by city ordinance about 15 years ago, and it sits for two years at a time, reporting to the mayor of Kawasaki at the end of each period. It has, as far as I can tell, essentially complete discretion over what it investigates and recommends, as long as it is talking about the position of foreign residents in Kawasaki. There doesn’t seem to be much risk of it running out of material.
The assembly is appointed, rather than elected, and while the mayor is obliged to receive and respond to the recommendations, he isn’t obliged to do as they say. Things have changed based on the assembly’s reports, though, so it is not purely window-dressing. Incidentally, I suspect that the main reason it is appointed rather than elected is that they have trouble getting enough foreign residents to fill it every time. Getting enough candidates to have a contested election is basically impossible.
The assembly has about 25 members, and splits into two subgroups, concerned with education & culture and society & living, for most discussions. Yesterday, I sat in on the society & living group, where most of the the discussion was about multicultural social workers. The basic problem is clearly a real one. Foreigners living anywhere face problems, some of which are the same as those of natives, others of which are due to cultural differences, or the simple legal complications of being foreign. However, when they try to solve those problems, there is often a shortage of support. In particular, there may not be anyone who can provide consultation in their native language. You might say that, if you are living in a country, you should learn the language, and I strongly agree, but sometimes the problems happen before you’ve quite finished. And since “quite finishing” can take five years or so, that’s not really too unlikely.
So, the council wanted to know what there was in the way of that sort of support, and what Kawasaki was doing to make sure that such people were available. There was some talk about what there is now, and criticism of the fact that it relies mainly on volunteers. Some volunteers are not trained in counselling, and they certainly don’t have the ability to actually do anything about people’s problems; all they can do is tell you where to go next. That’s helpful, but if you have to deal with the next place in Japanese, it’s not really enough.
However, the general desire for professionals struck me as a little unrealistic. In the first place, you need at least one per language group. Judging from the assembly home page, the important languages in Kawasaki are Chinese, Korean, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Tagalog, and Russian. So that’s six people, at least. If they are going to be able to actually solve problems, they need to be expert in all the rules and regulations of the city, and with various areas of social work. It’s not feasible for one person to be familiar with all of that; lawyers specialise, and so, I believe, do social workers. So that’s at least, say, 24 people. These people are all fluently bilingual, and have professional qualifications in another field.
Such people are not cheap.
Kawasaki has a population of over 1,400,000, and apparently about 3% are foreign. (This includes the so-called Zainichis, who are legally Chinese or Korean (North or South) despite the fact that they, and often their parents, were born and raised in Japan, and have never been to “their” countries. They are foreigners in a number of important senses, but obviously not in the senses that might immediately spring to mind. Some of the older ones were even born Japanese citizens, but lost that at the end of WWII. This is a complex issue that I’m not going to get into right now.) So, that’s somewhere around 40,000 foreign residents. Providing bilingual, professional-level support for that many people would be a major budgetary commitment. I’m not saying that the city shouldn’t be doing it, but is a very expensive suggestion really likely to be well-received right now?
Of course, the assembly should probably ask for the ideal, because it’s not likely to get more than it requests. But in that case, the hostility to volunteers was maybe overdone. They do make a difference, and if it’s the only possibility, it’s better than nothing. I confess to suspecting that even Japanese people don’t get the sort of professional support that was being requested; it is, even without the bilingualism, an expensive and limited commodity.
So, my impression of yesterday’s discussion is that it ended up being not particularly realistic. The topic is still being debated, though, so by the time they make their submission to the mayor, maybe the final proposal will be something more practical.