The arrival of the so-called “boat people” in the late 1970s in Japan was a historic episode in the country’s refugee policy. It was the first time that Japan accepted a significant number of refugees either to allow them to resettle in the country or to have them processed for resettlement in a third country. The accommodation of the “boat people” in late 1970s has been so far the only time that Japan opened its doors wide open for refugees.
The First Camp1
86-year old Fr. Harry Quaadvliet of the Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae/Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) recalled that in 1979 the first refugee camp in Japan was established by CARITAS Japan in an old church in Himeiji, Hyogo prefecture. Thirty-four Vietnamese from Akita prefecture came to this camp. This started the Center for Promoting Permanent Residence for Refugees to help those fleeing Vietnam. The camp was subsequently transferred to Nibuno district in Himeji where the CICM had built its house and where the St. Mary Hospital run by the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis was located. He also said that officials of the Japanese Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs came to the place for the establishment of a refugee center. Since then, Fr. Harry has been involved with the Vietnamese refugees. He has been known as the "father of Vietnamese refugees" for his lifelong service to them.2 Those who wanted to be resettled went to different countries such as US, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia and Norway. The Center closed in 1996.
Fr. Harry cited the case of about thirty people who travelled on a boat for more than forty days. Only a little over twenty people survived and were rescued; they were brought to Fukushima prefecture. Most of them decided to stay in Japan.
He noted that about four thousand Vietnamese refugees stayed in Hyogo prefecture (two thousand in Himeiji and another two thousand in Kobe). Some of the refugees in Nibuno district were Christians
(Catholics) who went to the nearby church, while others were Buddhists who went to a Buddhist temple in the area. The Buddhist temple had a Vietnamese monk who administered to the refugees. The temple offered a religious program for the children of the refugees. While the children of the Catholic refugees availed of the programs in the church’s Koryu Sentaa (Cultural Exchange Center).
He noted that many of the Vietnamese refugees were not able to integrate into the Japanese society. Many of them were men who married fellow Vietnamese; a few married Japanese women. Later on, some were able to return to Vietnam to visit relatives, do business and also to find spouses to marry (for the Vietnamese men).
Their children knew of their refugee background but they did not understand what it meant. They could not tell whether they were Japanese or Vietnamese. They only understood the Vietnamese language and did not speak it; they spoke the Japanese language. They also did not know the Vietnam War, or the communism in the country. They were educated in Japan and some of them had Japanese spouse. Some became Japanese citizens and assumed Japanese names. While many refugee parents could not integrate into the Japanese society, their children were able to do so. At present, three generations of Catholic Vietnamese in Nibuno attend mass in the church together, and served by a Vietnamese priest and two Vietnamese Sisters.
Some of the refugees transferred from Nibuno district to Yao city in Osaka prefecture and Kobe city due to availability of work. They come together to celebrate every August 15th (Moon Festival) and December 31st (Lunar New Year) of each year.
Higashi Elementary School in Himeiji3
Ms. Kayuki Kanagawa is a teacher in the Higashi Elementary School in Himeiji. She has been doing work since mid-1990s with Vietnamese children, whose grandparents were refugees in the late 1970s.
As of November 2015, twenty-one foreign students study in the school, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese-Filipino children. Ms. Kanagawa teaches these students in a room devoted to activities for these children.
Ms. Kanagawa started this special class for Vietnamese-descent children in 1995. But she became even more motivated to continue with the special class after learning about the suicide of a former Vietnamese student who could not adjust to school life and started working without finishing his schooling to support his family. The school principal dubbed Ms. Kanagawa as the “mother of Vietnamese children.”
The Vietnamese parents want their children to use Japanese names in school instead of their real Vietnamese names. These parents believe that using Japanese names would: 1) prevent their children from suffering the discrimination they experienced during their childhood; and 2) help their children in becoming naturalized Japanese citizens later on.
Ms. Kanagawa tells the Vietnamese parents that there is no discrimination in the school against foreign children. She asks them to allow their children to use their real Vietnamese names. With their real names, Ms. Kanagawa believes that the children learn to value their identity as Vietnamese.
In the special room in the school (called World Room), foreign students learn their own language. For the Vietnamese children, they learn the Vietnamese language and culture. They make traditional Vietnamese crafts used in Vietnamese festivals such as lanterns, and do traditional dance (such as the lion dance). They are also provided tutoring inside the room regarding their regular school subjects.
In another school, Joto Elementary School, Vietnamese girls wear ao dai for the graduation ceremony.
However, after graduating from primary school, some Vietnamese-descent students use Japanese names. They seem to think that it is more convenient to hide their identity and use Japanese names when they grow up. There are also companies they work for that ask them to use Japanese names for convenience.
Ms. Kanagawa sees the need for the Vietnamese students to get more support to enable them to be on equal footing with their fellow students. She thinks that the past educational policy of Japan was wrong in not recognizing the contribution of foreign children in the education of all children. She, however, cites some changes being made. The Hyogo prefectural government is adopting from 2016 school year a special admission quota for foreign students who came to Japan in the past three years. But this policy would not cover the foreign students of Ms. Kanagawa.
She hopes to have a good Vietnamese role model and a good Vietnamese community. She plays a role in the Vietnamese community despite her inability to speak Vietnamese. But she hopes that the Vietnamese community would develop its own system of supporting its members.
She learned a lot in helping Vietnamese children during the past twenty years. She remains their strong supporter. She realizes that a country where children cannot laugh is a broken society.
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1 Unless indicated otherwise, the discussion in this section is based on interview of Fr. Harry Quaadvliet held on 29 October 2015 in the CICM house in Nibuno district, Himeiji, Hyogo prefecture by Jefferson R. Plantilla, Emika Tokunaga and Chika Kajita.
2 “More than 25 years on, the ‘father of Vietnamese refugees,’" Asia News, www.asianews.it/news-en/More-than-25-years-on,-the-father-of-Vietnamese-refugees-recalls-the-difficult-integration-7848.html.