Finally, Real Discussions

I’m afraid this post is a week or so late, but on the 26th September we had another meeting of the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. This was the fifth meeting of the assembly, and we finally got on to actually discussing issues, at least in the Life and Society subcommittee. As you may remember, at the end of our last exciting meeting, we still had to decide the order in which we would discuss the topics that we thought would take some time, so that was what we started last week’s session with. Fortunately, this proved to be almost completely uncontroversial, and it took about ten minutes to agree on an order. That meant that we could get on with discussing the topics we had chosen as not requiring too much time.

The first topic was immigration rules, and specifically the rules for family. If a foreigner has residence rights in Japan, they are allowed to bring their spouse or children over, and those family members can also get long-term visas. However, this is as far as it extends. The particular problem that people wanted to raise was that of parents. First, several of the women on the committee said that they wanted their mothers to come over when they gave birth, to help with the baby, but they could only come on tourist visas, which are limited to three months. Obviously, that’s not really long enough to help with a baby. The other major issue was that people wanted their parents to come live with them, as their parents were getting old. It seems that, if your parents have no other relatives in their home country, or cannot live by themselves, it is possible to get special permission for them to stay in Japan long-term, but this is rather limited. It might be better to spend time as a family before your parents lose their independence, for example, or you might be the best able to look after them, even though there are other children back in their home country.

Looking at other countries, South Korea is similar to Japan, while Canada is much more generous, admitting parents, siblings, and unmarried partners. Thus, we decided that we wanted to ask Kawasaki to ask the government to broaden the family category, to allow parents, at least, to come and live in Japan with their children. However, we also want to note that the availability of special permission is a good thing, so we are going to return to the issue next time, after our secretariat has looked into the details of when it might be available. We really don’t want to formally ask for something that already exists. However, that’s just the details of the proposal; the broad outline has been fixed.

The second topic was the availability of City Hall services on the weekend. There are a number of things that you have to do at the ward offices, but they are normally only open during weekday working hours, which can be difficult if you work. However, the material provided by the secretariat revealed that Kawasaki offices are already open two Saturday mornings a month, and that you can do almost all of the paperwork then. (The big exception is tax-related paperwork.) In particular, you can do foreigner registration. A lot of the representatives didn’t know about this at all, and although I knew the offices opened, I didn’t think you could do foreigner registration, or most of the other things. In addition, the comparative information the secretariat provided showed that Kawasaki has the most generous opening hours of any of the “shireitoshi”; large cities with a special form of government that makes them largely independent of the prefecture. As a result, we decided that we didn’t want to ask for any improvement of the services, but rather to ask for better publicity. However, that sort of topic is the purview of the other subcommittee, so we’re going to talk about passing it over when we have the next Chairpersons’ Meeting.

That took about an hour, for both together. I really hadn’t expected the topics to take so little time to discuss. It’s not a bad thing, but we were at a bit of a loose end. We decided what information we wanted the secretariat to prepare for the next meeting, and then talked about experiences of being foreign in Japan, such as being stopped by the police and asked for ID. This has never happened to me, but it has happened to a lot of the other representatives. This is a tricky topic, because most of it falls outside the jurisdiction of the city, but it is clearly very important to foreigners living in Japan. We’re planning to discuss something related to it later (surveying foreign residents to find out what the problems are), but it’s not clear what we can do about it directly.

Overall, then, the meeting went very well. We might even be able to get through the three remaining short topics next time, which would be great, as it would leave us plenty of time to discuss the complicated issues. The discussion as a whole went well, with only one representative saying nothing until asked directly for an opinion. Obviously, some people are more proactive than others, but everyone is participating, and, so far, we have reached unanimous agreement on what we want to say about the topics. Long may this continue.

Yet More Preliminaries

Today we had another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. We are still working on the preliminaries, but we have, at least nearly finished.

Today’s job was to choose the topics we will discuss in detail over the rest of our term. My goal for my subcommittee was to have the whole list and order fixed, so that we could start actual discussions next time (which is not until September). We very, very nearly got there, deciding on the whole list and on the topics we would discuss first. Thus, next time, we will decide on the rest of the order at the beginning of the meeting, and then move on to proper discussions. I am optimistic that we will be able to decide on the order within thirty minutes, which should leave a substantial amount of time for real discussion.

As I proposed, we split the topics into things we could cover quickly, and things that would take longer. We decided on the order for the things we can cover quickly, and on the first of the longer topics, so there are only four longer topics to put in order. This is made a little more difficult by the fact that we almost certainly won’t get to the last of the longer topics, so that putting something down the order is equivalent to abandoning it. However, I think that the subcommittee will be amenable to deciding things within a relatively short space of time.

One thing I realised while we were discussing potential topics was that a lot of important topics are really about the national level. Immigration, pensions, rules on family names, voting rights: these are all important topics to foreign residents, but the amount the city of Kawasaki can do is very limited. I am trying to encourage the subcommittee to concentrate on topics that fall within the city’s competence, because that’s probably where we can achieve the most. If the national government has to deal with it, we can get Kawasaki to push for a particular decision, but that’s all. On the other hand, if it’s within Kawasaki’s competence, we can actually get it fixed.

For example, of the two short themes we are hoping to look at next time, one concerns immigration. Foreign residents of Japan can’t bring their parents over as dependents, and for people from a lot of cultures, that is a problem. I’d also like to be able to offer my mother accommodation in her old age, when she gets there, although whether she’d want to come to Japan is a different question. However, this is a matter for immigration law. All we can ask the city to do is to petition the central government.

On the other hand, the other one concerns the ability to carry out administrative procedures at the weekend. Kawasaki already provides facilities for Japanese residents to do the paperwork for moving in and out of Kawasaki at weekends, but foreign residents cannot. We will discuss what we’d like the city to do about that. And, of course, the city can actually take action on what we recommend, because making administrative services available on weekends is something the city can decide to do all by itself.

Thus, if we decide to make recommendations on both issues, I would expect to see results on the second much more quickly than on the first, and so I think that, as far as possible, it is better to spend our time discussing issues of the second sort.

Even more fundamental than that, however, is that we actually start spending our time discussing. I really hope that we can get the rest of the topics into order quickly next time.

Still More Preliminary Discussions

On Sunday, we had another meeting of the representative assembly. This week, the main task was to establish sub-committees, and decide on the general topics they would discuss.

The first question was whether we would have any sub-committees at all. As the full committee has 26 members, I said that I thought it would be impossible to properly discuss issues without splitting, and other people then chimed in to agree with me. The motion to establish sub-committees was passed unanimously. Then there was the question of how many sub-committees to set up. I thought we should have three, because even 13 is a bit big for proper discussions, but this time the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of just having two committees. (It wasn’t only me in favour of three, but it wasn’t a close vote.)

So, then we had to decide what each committee would discuss. We had thirteen broad topics that the secretariat had distilled from the points we raised at the previous meeting, and the discussion got a bit complex, partly due to me misunderstanding a proposal, and partly due to a process that made it look like the rejected proposal was going to be implemented. The initial choice was between broadly splitting the sub-committees into “education” and “social issues”, and assigning each of the 13 topics individually to a group. I voted for the first, purely because I thought it would take too long to assign the topics individually, and the first option won.

Then someone pointed out that we needed to decide which topics were going to be on each committee, so that people knew which committee they wanted to be on.

Actually, that wasn’t the same as the rejected proposal, because most of the topics on the list obviously belonged to one or the other. The “education” topic, for instance, would go to the “education” sub-committee, while the “pensions” topic would go to the “society” committee. In the end, we were able to decide the broad spread quite quickly, and then people said which committee they wanted to be on. There were two absences, and we got a 14-10 split, which is close enough to half and half to not require any changes, so that stage was quick.

We then had the first sub-committee meetings, where we had to choose a chair, vice-chair, and name. I joined the society committee, and, of the people nominated, I was the only one who didn’t pull out. The chairs of the sub-committees have to attend weekday preparatory meetings, which makes it difficult for a lot of people, so in the end we didn’t have an election. Everyone just put their hands up to approve me as chair.

There was a real election for vice-chair, because the vice-chair only has to do things on the normal meeting days, so we got two candidates. Fortunately, that didn’t take long either. Choosing the committee’s name was also easy. One member proposed using the same name as last session, another member agreed, and then everyone voted in favour. Thus, we are the “Society and Lifestyle Sub-committee”.

That actually left us a few minutes to discuss what we would discuss, but we didn’t get very far. However, we did make a little bit of progress: there are “deep” issues, and “shallow” issues. A shallow issue is one where there isn’t really a lot for us to discuss or investigate, so we might be able to deal with quite a few of them, as well as with one or two deep issues. I’m certainly going to propose splitting it that way next time. In any event, next time will take us to one quarter of our term, so I really want to finish deciding the topics then.

It has taken a long time to get through the preliminaries, but I can’t really see how it could have been done much more quickly. Everything has to be done in the meetings, and the constitution of the assembly means that we have to decide just about everything for ourselves. People have to be given the chance to make their opinions heard. So, there’s probably nothing that can be done about it. Extending the assembly’s term to three years would reduce the proportion of time spent on preliminaries, but it would require revising the city ordinances, and people who could commit for two years might not be able to commit for three. In the end, I suspect that this is a necessary evil.

On the bright side, quite a few people are participating, and things are going fairly smoothly, so once we do get onto actual topics I think that we will make progress. I’ll just have to do my best to get my sub-committee there as quickly as possible.

Discussing What To Discuss

It’s nearly two weeks since we had the second meeting of the Foreigners’ Assembly, and I’ve still not written about it. So, I’d better rectify that. (There are quite a few things I ought to write about on this blog but haven’t yet, I’m afraid.)

As I predicted last time, we did not finish early. In fact, we had to extend the meeting by fifteen minutes to get everything done. Somewhat surprisingly, however, it wasn’t the discussion of topics for discussion that held us up. We split into two groups for that, and in our group we first went round the room, with everyone getting five minutes to say what they wanted to discuss. Everyone had topics to bring up, and everyone stayed within the allotted time, and on point while they were speaking. I was impressed; with twelve or so people in the room, I’d expected at least one person to not be good at meetings. We then had a short discussion, which gave me an idea of who the talkative people are. I’m going to have to be assertive if I want to get a word in edgeways. (Unusually, the most assertive and vocal people were all women.)

I raised three issues. First, I’d like to see the city conduct a formal survey of foreign residents’ experiences of discrimination, ideally using the same format as EU-MIDIS, so that we get comparative data. At the moment, we’re working with purely anecdotal data, so we don’t have a good idea of what the problems are. Second, although the assembly has discussed Japanese language education provision for children many times, it has never formally discussed provision for adults, and I think that would be a good idea. Finally, I’d like to talk about ways to help foreign residents get involved in local society, both to prevent them from becoming isolated, and to give Japanese residents more experience of their foreign neighbours. In the long term, I think it would help with a lot of the problems that foreigners seem to face.

There was some overlap with the points raised by other people, but points about children’s education came up a lot again. I just want to pick up on a few of the suggestions.

First, several people suggested that the city should help with providing education for children in their foreign parent’s (or parents’) language. They talked about “native language”, but the problem is that these children’s native language is Japanese, because that’s what they speak most of the time. Actually, I don’t think this is the city’s responsibility. I agree that it’s important — I’m trying to make sure that Mayuki can speak English, after all — but I think it’s something that we should do for ourselves. The city arguably has a responsibility to make it easy for foreigners to integrate into local society, but I don’t think that extends to supporting foreign language education.

Second, it seems that people are still having significant problems renting property. One problem is that landlords apparently often require a contact who is either a Japanese citizen or, at least, a permanent resident. This is obviously tricky for new immigrants. Another is that many landlords will apparently still not rent to foreigners. This is a problem that the assembly raised more than a decade ago, and Kawasaki passed an ordinance saying that landlords should rent to foreigners (and the disabled, and old people), and establishing a system that provides guarantors for such people. However, it would seem that that ordinance has not had as much effect as might have been hoped. (This is a place where proper statistics would be a really big help, but we don’t have them.) So, I think that we should discuss this issue again, and make a new recommendation. Perhaps the city should pass an ordinance with a penalty attached; I’m pretty sure Kawasaki has the authority to do that. (It’s a special city, with most of the powers of a prefecture; the largest cities in Japan all have this status, apart from Tokyo, which has a unique governmental structure.)

Anyway, that went very smoothly, and both groups reported back to the main meeting. Our secretariat will prepare an organised summary of the points for the next meeting, when we will actually pick topics.

The next bit took a bit longer. We had to decide whether to participate in city events (we did), and then split the members up between the committees that would plan our participation. I joined the editorial committee for the newsletter; it seemed like the obvious home for me.

So, we made some concrete progress this time, and the flow of the meeting boded very well for the future. My impression from the earlier meetings, that this would be a good group, was confirmed.

I hope that we can actually achieve something. We’ll have to work hard, and together.

Formally Representative

On Sunday, we had the first formal meeting of the Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. The program was simple, but all of it was important, and all of it got done.

First, we all received our formal notices of appointment from the deputy mayor of Kawasaki. This was when we officially became representatives, with a term of office lasting until the end of March 2012. The deputy mayor then made a short speech welcoming us to the assembly and encouraging us to contribute to the city. He said that, when Kawasaki was founded in 1924, it had only 50,000 residents. It now has 1.41 million, is the eighth largest city in Japan, and is the fastest growing. Considering that the name means nothing more than motorbikes to most people outside the country, that’s pretty impressive. He also said that direct flights between Haneda and London will start this summer, which will be helpful for us; Haneda is right next to Kawasaki, unlike Narita, which is on the far side of Tokyo.

Second, we had to choose a chair and deputy chair. Ms Elok was elected as the chair, the first female chair that the Assembly has had in its fourteen-year history. (It’s had seven male chairs.) She’s from Indonesia, and was the deputy chair of the last assembly. Mr Opango was elected as the deputy chair; he’s from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was the deputy chair a few assemblies ago.

The election went smoothly, although the election for chair was fiercely contested, in the sense that the two candidates were neck-and-neck with twenty two of twenty six votes counted.

Finally, we confirmed the schedule for this year.

We finished an hour early. Apparently the elections have taken a lot longer in the past, with people arguing about the voting methods, so I think time was allowed for that. However, the secretariat seem to have learned from those experiences, because the voting system they proposed was simple but reasonable. People could nominate themselves or others; those nominated by others could then withdraw. If there was only one candidate, which didn’t happen, there would be a show of hands to confirm it, and if that didn’t reach half of the representatives nominations would be reopened. With multiple candidates, there was a secret ballot; if the candidate with most votes did not have a majority, the top two candidates would enter a run-off election. However, while there were ballots for both posts, there was no need for a run-off, so it took less than an hour.

The next meeting, in May, is for deciding what we are going to investigate over the next couple of years. Obviously, the details will develop over time, but we have to set the broad topics first. I suspect that the next meeting will not finish early.

I’m looking forward to it.

Preliminary Training Session

Yesterday, there was a preliminary training session for the eighth Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. As one of the new representatives, I naturally went along. The session was held in Kawasaki City Hall, in a meeting room on the fifteenth floor, which had quite a good view of the city. There were name badges and name plates for everyone, and great piles of literature in everyone’s place. I’ve not read all of it yet, but I hope I’ll be able to get to it before the first real session.

The training session started off with self-introductions; there are 26 representatives, and this time we have 17 different countries of citizenship (our Canadian is from China, and speaks better Japanese than English), representing every continent apart from Antarctica. Since there are no countries on Antarctica, that’s not really surprising. We then had a talk introducing Kawasaki, and explaining how the assembly works, before the chair of the last assembly told us a bit about it from his experience. Then there was a mock meeting, followed by a chance to chat with some of the other members. The lunch break was also good for that, so I’ve talked for some time with about half of the representatives already. I hope I’ll get chance to do that more over the next two years. We finished up with some messages of encouragement and advice from people who had been on the panel in the past.

The Assembly gets significant support from the city, as it’s established by ordinance. There’s a non-career track employee who works full time on supporting the assembly, gathering information we need, and two career-track employees who, I think, mostly work on supporting it. Having attended quite a lot of meetings last year, I know that the staff do provide a significant amount of information to the assembly, when they are asked for it, but they don’t participate in the discussions except when reporting on what they’ve found, so they really do support the assembly.

About the only thing I learned about the assembly’s procedures yesterday was that individual members are not allowed to submit materials for consideration. All documents submitted to the assembly must be prepared by the secretariat and approved by the chair and vice-chair, to ensure that they maintain neutrality. On the other hand, during the meetings the representatives can say whatever they like, so it’s not as if we’re being censored. (I imagine that people who hadn’t read two annual reports and attended five meetings last year learned more; certainly it seemed to cover all the important points.)

The mock meeting was very useful. We were split into groups of five and, after the initial diffidence, everyone in our group contributed quite enthusiastically to the discussion. We didn’t get sidetracked much, and we had a solid set of opinions to present to the full meeting. That seemed to be true of the other three groups, as well. The people who had been on the assembly in the past sat in on the groups, and they all commented that the discussion had been good, so I think everyone must have contributed. This is a very good sign; it suggests that the discussions over the two years will go well.

The first formal meeting is in two weeks. That’s when we are officially appointed, and elect the chair and vice-chair. Apparently, that will take up just about all of our time. At the second meeting, we decide, in broad terms, what we are going to discuss, and how we are going to organise the assembly; it normally splits into sub-groups, just like in the mock meeting. The real work of the assembly starts from the third meeting.

I’m looking forward to it.

Becoming a Civil Servant

Yesterday I received a letter from the mayor of Kawasaki, informing me that I had been selected to serve as a representative on the eighth session of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. My term of office starts in April, and runs for two years, until March 2012.

Apparently, while I am a representative, I will be a special local civil servant. I think the “special” part means that I don’t get any of the normal benefits of being a civil servant. You know, pension, secure job, that sort of thing. I do get some money for turning up to meetings, but let’s just say I wouldn’t do this job for the money alone.

The city is holding a meeting to introduce the assembly and the city before the formal first meeting, so I should learn quite a lot about Kawasaki at that point. I also need to work on what I want to discuss at the assembly. I have, as I mentioned, some ideas, but I have held off working on any details until I got the notification. After all, with twice as many applicants as places, there was no guarantee I would get on.

Now I suppose I should point out that when I post on this blog, I am posting in an entirely personal capacity, and my opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the assembly. Sometimes, I might not even believe that they should.

Interview

On Sunday, I was interviewed for the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. In the past, the normal situation has apparently been that they have had trouble finding enough people, but this time they had around fifty applicants, and the assembly has a maximum membership of about twenty five. Thus, I suppose, the need for interviews to help decide between the people who had applied. That said, the interviews were only ten minutes long, so while they would be fine for confirming Japanese ability (important, since that’s the language of the meetings), I’m not sure how much they could learn in depth about the candidates.

The questions were much as I expected. Some were practical, about my Japanese ability and whether I intended to move out of Kawasaki or take Japanese citizenship. Obviously, those are all basic requirements for the post. They also wanted to know what I wanted to do on the assembly.

There are two things. First, I’d like to investigate the possibility of doing a proper survey on the problems that foreigners living in Kawasaki encounter. I don’t think there’s any hard data on what the real problems are, which makes any policies a bit of a shot in the dark.

Second, I’d like to look at things the city can afford to do to help foreigners integrate better into Japanese society. The language is obviously a big one, but I don’t know what the city can actually afford to do to help with that; language lessons are expensive, and volunteer lessons expensive to organise. Still, if I’m chosen for the committee, I have two years to look into things before we have to produce concrete suggestions.

Because of the number of candidates, it might, apparently, be March before we know whether we’ve been chosen. I might have moved by then! (Although not out of Kawasaki…)

Multicultural Social Workers

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.