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Building multicultural society in Japan

27 January 2010

Rajender Singh Negi of OneWorld South Asia.

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FM YY community radio station in Japan has been helping to build a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society for the last 15 years. Established after the Kobe earthquake in 1995, it has also played a pivotal role in preparing citizens – especially foreign residents – to face disasters.

Kobe, Japan: Fifteen years after it started from a single room with a skeletal staff, the FM YY community radio station continues to serve foreigners from Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Peru and other countries living in Kobe as the main source of news and entertainment.

Image credits: Office of FM YY in Takatori locality of Nagata Ward in Kobe

Today, it has two full-time, four part-time staffers along with 80 volunteers participating in producing programmes in 10 languages for 17 hours everyday.

Programmes are broadcast everyday from 7 am until midnight. The issues include not only disaster reduction measures but also community development issues such as health and education, apart from usual entertainment.

Although, the broadcasting range is in and around Nagata Ward in Kobe city, but these programmes can be heard all over Japan and in other countries through the Internet.

The need for a community radio station was felt immediately after the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake (known more as Kobe earthquake to the outside world) that struck the Kobe City and adjoining areas in the wee hours on January 17, 1995, which had left a trail of destruction behind – 6,434 people dead, many more injured and tens of thousands of houses and other buildings destroyed.

Immediately after the quake, the city was abuzz with stories that foreigners were indulging in loot and arson and raping of their women. It later turned out that these were all baseless rumours.

It reminded the Kobe citizens of similar rumours that had spread thick and fast during the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Tokyo, resulting in the massacre of 6,000-7,000 foreigners by the local Japanese.

It was this kind of scenario that prompted people like Junichi Hibino to start a community radio station that would not only help in quelling rumour-mongering but also provide useful information about relief and other assistance, which they were finding hard to get in a characteristically monolingual country.

The objective was to build a bonding between the Japanese people and the foreigners living in his country, as also to serve the needs of the elderly and handicapped people.

Roxana Oshiro, a Japanese-Peruvian, has been living in Japan since 1991. She was in Kobe when the earthquake struck. Although nobody from her family sustained any injuries but the apartment she was living in with her husband had damaged.

Today she recalls the difficulties she faced in accessing aid information due to her inability to comprehend Japanese language. Later when FM YY came into being, she not only got benefited by its Spanish language programmes but also decided to be part of it.

Today she works as a coordinator of the group Comunidad Latina de Hyogo (Hyogo Latin Community). She is also closely associated with a Spanish magazine called Mujer Latina and with Radio FM YY’s Japanese-Spanish programme Salsa Latina.

Image credits: OWSA/ Junichi Hibino, Director FM YY

Presently serving as the Director of FM YY, Hibino appears a humble man. The thing that strikes you when you meet him is the languidness in his demeanor.

He may seem a person not in a hurry but determined enough to reach his destination. He speaks slowly, choosing his words meticulously so as not to leave room for any ambiguity. He speaks his English that is interspersed with plenty of Japanese sounds.

He outlined three main barriers between Japanese and foreign residents – language, mental barrier and the governmental support barrier (foreign residents are not eligible for many government services).

“During the rescue, I had found out how deep-seated the ignorance and prejudice among the people were. I also witnessed how in shelters, when people came in direct contact with each other, these barriers got slowly removed. So I wanted this process to continue even during normal times,” he said.

According to him, it is very important to understand the people in the community during normal times. It makes it that much easier to work together in times of emergency as in disasters.

The beginnings

Two weeks after the earthquake on January 30, a small radio station, FM Yoboseyo [meaning hollow in Korean], came up in a room of a Korean Culture School just a short distance away from JR Shinnagata Station in Takatori, a residential area in Nagata Ward.

Another radio station was set up in April that year in the grounds of Takatori Catholic Church Volunteer Centre. This came to be known as FM Yumen [meaning friendship in Vietnamese].

It was broadcasting news in five languages that included Vietnamese, Tagalog and English for Filipinos, Spanish for Latin Americans and in Japanese.

Six months after the quake, both these radio stations [FM Yoboseyo and FM Yumen] were amalgamated. This was the beginning of FM YY. On the first anniversary of Kobe earthquake, it was granted a license by the Post and Telecommunications Ministry. It now offers services in ten languages.

“Thus this radio station became the symbol of multicultural coexistence. It gave a flicker of light to those whose life was completely engulfed in darkness after the quake,” he recalled.

Asked how he had managed to run it non-stop for nearly a decade and a half, he said that it was possible because of financial and other kinds of support from people around the country, who were interested in creating a mass culture in Japan. Several non-profit organisations also pitched in to provide financial assistance.

FM YY also works in close association with Disaster Reduction Learning Centre (DLRC) that was jointly established by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Hyogo Prefectural government.

JICA and DLRC jointly prepared “Disaster Management Audio Materials for Community Radio Broadcasting (DMAM) that includes audio materials about disaster preparedness in nine languages – English, Chinese, Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian. Disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, landslides and floods are covered by it.

Image credits: OWSA/ Pictures showing destruction of Kobe after the massive earthquake in 1995

These materials can be broadcast easily and speedily on local community radio stations in developing countries when natural disasters occur.

Hibino had left his job as a journalist with one of the prominent newspapers of Japan, Mainichi Shimbun, to dedicate himself for furthering the cause of creating a lively community in Nagata Ward.

Today, it seems, multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity are not only coexisting in his country but also thriving. There is also a greater preparedness among citizens and foreign residents to face disasters. And the community radio that he helped set up and run is playing a pivotal role in it.

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