On September 30, members and trainees of the Asian Health Institute and ANT-Hiroshima participated in a training on social engagement that mainly took place in the Motomachi neighborhood of Hiroshima. Along with the more serious parts of the training, focused on immigration and integration, social work, and disaster relief, the day also involved playing games with students at Motomachi Elementary School and watching them perform a violin recital and a Chinese dragon dance.
Toward the beginning of the day, the principal of Motomachi Elementary, Takashi Ninomiya, gave a lecture on the neighborhood’s and the school’s history, a history deeply intertwined with that of the city.
The Motomachi Apartments, originally built to house people who had lost their homes in the atomic bombing, are now home to a number of immigrants. In particular, some residents are Japanese “war orphans,” people who were forced to be left behind as babies in Japan’s colony in Manchuria at the end of World War II. Raised Chinese and unable to return to Japan until 1981, when Japan and China agreed to allow war orphans to return home, the returnees generally were left feeling rootless rather than receiving a warm welcome in their native land. Unable to speak Japanese and forced to work low-paying jobs, many returnees who settled in Hiroshima had to live in the publicly funded Motomachi Apartments. The move to Japan was hard on their children and grandchildren too, who also often questioned their identity. Many of these third-generation war orphans now attend Motomachi Elementary.
Principal Ninomiya shared that, when he first began working as a teacher at Motomachi Elementary 15 years ago, often the final insult hurled in a fight would be “Go back to China!” Chinese students don’t make up the only immigrant group at Motomachi Elementary; many of the AHI participants (and myself, the lone American) met students from their country of origin. In the past, the school rarely produced students who went on university, or even sometimes high school.
However, times are changing. Principal Ninomiya said that because Hiroshima was often the port of departure for colonists heading to Manchuria, it is now Hiroshima’s duty to take care of the returnees and their families. The same spirit extents to all students at Motomachi Elementary. In recent years Motomachi Elementary’s dropout rate has dramatically improved, and the atmosphere is much more inclusive. The school makes sure students learning Japanese as a second language are brought up to speed through small-group tutoring and are integrated into the normal classroom environment. The teachers take care to communicate with one another about how their students are doing so that no one falls through the cracks. One AHI participant remarked that he was moved to see the inclusion of students with disabilities, along with students from all backgrounds.
Students and teachers also guided AHI participants through the school’s exhibit on an atomic-bombed hackberry tree that used to grow in the school grounds. The exhibit chronicled how students from Motomachi Elementary cared for the ailing tree, and, although it eventually died, the school later planted and cared for saplings from other A-bombed trees.
In the afternoon, the AHI participants split into three groups. One group went to the Chūō Community Center to meet retired social worker Chikako Nakamoto, who is generally referred to simply as Bacchan (Granny), and her group of volunteers. Nakamoto-san and the other volunteers run Tabete Katarō Kai, a community meal that takes place every two weeks. The dinner has two goals: One, to feed local youths who don’t get enough to eat at home due to domestic violence or loss of amenities, and two, to introduce said youths to other members of the community, including people who have similarly troubled pasts. Nakamoto-san, who, during her tenure as a social worker, welcomed her cases and their friends into her Motomachi apartment and fed them at any time, still has a 24-hour-a-day open-door policy. Her philosophy is that someone is more likely to open up and less likely to resort to crime when well fed, and 30 years of experience have proved her right.
The AHI participants watched a short documentary, Granny Loves You: The Probation Officer’s Tale, that chronicled the last few years leading up to Nakamoto-san’s retirement. The film explored Nakamoto-san’s simple and effective way of relating to the boys assigned to her — feed them, don’t scold them. There was time for a question and answer session after watching the film, where participants expressed their gratitude to Nakamoto-san for sharing her story and asked her further questions about her activities.
Afterward, everyone headed to another room in the Community Center, where dinner preparations were already in progress. Participants spent time chatting while assisting Nakamoto-san and the other volunteers in making yakisoba, vegetable tempura, and oyakodon.
Another third of the participants spent the afternoon visiting Hagukumi no Sato, a welfare center that provides people with mental disabilities support and training to help them lead an independent life, find their place in the community, and raise their self-esteem and self-worth. The organization bases its activities on respect for individuals and a desire to nurture their abilities. The participants listened to an explanation of Hagukumi no Sato’s vision and activities and talked with members of the community about their lives, feelings, how Hagukumi no Sato has affected them, and the organization’s history and how it functions financially. Hagukumi no Sato members and AHI trainees compared perspectives on living with mental disabilities from their various countries.
The final group of AHI participants went to Asaminami-ku, the location of the worst of the August 20, 2014 landslides. Participants listened to a presentation by Matsubara Hiroki, who works at the Hiroshima NPO Center; they also visited the site of the landslides and observed the reconstruction efforts currently taking place. The main focus of Matsubara-san’s presentation was how, immediately after the disaster, the NPO network coordinated with the local government to remove debris, distribute supplies and hot meals, maintain evacuation centers, and care for children and the elderly. Trauma counseling is currently the primary volunteer activity.
Overall, the day was a welcome opportunity to learn about some of the more recent challenges the people of Hiroshima have faced and how they are being addressed. I believe participants finished the training moved, thinking of connections to their own communities, and inspired to put what they learned into action.