By Kazuhiro Kuramochi
On a chilly but lovely day in the middle of December in 2021, a young Indian guest and Japanese language volunteers were having a conversation in a room divided by plastic partitions at KIA (Kochi International Association) near Kochi Castle in downtown Kochi.
“What did you have for breakfast this morning?”, a volunteer asked the guest with the cream-colored T-shirt to strike up a conversation.
“I had bread and coffee”, he answers in Japanese, but added “Fried eggs” in English. He looked at a photo of Medama-yaki (fried eggs) that the volunteer showed him.
“Do you know why fried eggs are called Medama-yaki in Japanese?” asked the volunteer, smiling under his face mask.
“Well…I don’t know.”, he said looked a little confused. Then the volunteer started to draw a picture of Medama-yaki carefully and slowly with a pencil.
“This part, the yolk looks like Medama (eyeball), doesn’t it?”, with a smile on his face. “That’s why fried eggs are called Medama-yaki in Japanese”, he explained.
“Oh, that makes sense!”, the guest’s face full of excitement.
“Kochi Nihongo saloon” is a volunteer group where Japanese is taught to foreigners living in Kochi. It is a free service with 30 volunteers consisting of professional Japanese language teachers, retired Japanese language teachers, Kochi University students, etc. Any foreigners in Kochi are welcome to join the group. The group meets every Saturday from 1:30 – 3pm on the second floor of the KIA building. This group gives foreign people the opportunity to not only be tutored for free, but the chance to interact with Japanese people in a calm and casual environment. In addition to that, it sometimes holds and joins enjoyable events which foreigners can experience traditional Japanese culture such as Japanese-style calligraphy and Yosakoi Festival (Kochi’s traditional festival).
According to Ministry of Justice, there are approximately 4,800 foreign people in Kochi prefecture as of 2021. More than 1,700 foreigners are Technical Intern Trainees, some of them have a good ability to speak Japanese, but others do not. Some foreigners do not frequently communicate in Japanese with their coworkers, which causes them to struggle to improve their Japanese speaking ability. They work hard in Kochi and many send money they earn to their families overseas, so they cannot afford to spend money to learn Japanese. That’s why they seek opportunities to learn Japanese. That is where “Kochi Nihongo saloon” comes in.
Kochi Nihongo saloon accepts foreign people no matter their mother tongue, race, age, and where they come from. They come from America, Canada, Indonesia, China, Philippines and so on, speaking various languages such as English, Chinese, and Indonesian. Kochi Nihongo saloon is an inclusive place for those who want to learn and improve their Japanese abilities.
“I wish for Kochi Nihongo saloon to become a community where foreign people can interact with not only native Japanese speakers, but also foreign people from all over the world”-Ms. Sato, a professional Japanese language teacher and one of the volunteer members said. Making this kind of community is so important and valuable when natural disasters occur. If both Japanese people and foreign people know each other in a community like Kochi Nihongo saloon in advance, foreigners would have support and know who could help them out when emergencies occur.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Kochi prefecture, there has been 4,339 cases so far and 33 people have died. It goes without saying that this greatly affected the activity of Kochi Nihongo saloon. Firstly, the number of Japanese language learners decreased, and the volunteer members had no choice but to stop the activity for a while when the condition got worse. At this period, Kochi Nihongo saloon had to face a big problem unlike any it had before. That was to improve computer literacy among the volunteer members. The proficiency of said skills varied from person to person as the volunteer’s ages range from 20s to 70s. Therefore, volunteer members who have stronger abilities with computers needed to support those who were less proficient. It will take some time for each member to improve their computer literacy, but if it’s done, Kochi Nihongo saloon would help extend the cultural diversity of the Kochi community and strengthen the connections between foreigners and locals.
“Online classes can be useful for all teachers, schools, and students.”, Mrs. Sato said with a smile on her face. “Teachers don’t need to copy class materials but need only pay for communication expenses and students don’t need to pay travel expenses.”.
A lack of Japanese volunteer member is also a problem. Kochi Nihongo saloon is operated by rotating roster system – three groups take turns to teach Japanese to foreign people. However, there used to be four groups in the past, which means the organization needs more volunteer members. The more the members any further decrease, the greater burden the remaining members must carry.
While complicated problems occur from pillar to post, we can hear encouragement from a Japanese language learner who came to Kochi last September all the way from Canada.
“Kochi Nihongo saloon is a nice place to meet other foreigners who want to learn Japanese.”, the man said. He works as an English teacher at a high school in Kochi city and learns Japanese at Kochi Nihongo saloon.
“The number one thing I want to do with learning Japanese is meeting and making friends with variety of Japanese people from all over Japan and further immerse myself in Japanese cultures and traditions.”, he continues. He has a strong passion for interacting with Japanese people and getting to know more about the people, language, and culture in Japan. He says, “I want to improve my Japanese language ability A LOT”.