Living in Japan
A good sort

A good sort

Added In: Living in Japan › For the kids

Connie Pidelo-Ona

 A little dose of joy (and relief) for foreign mothers (and fathers) in Nagoya


Bounmy (Boon-mee) Dao* from Laos came to Nagoya University in Japan for his graduate studies in law. His wife came with him but when he had to go to the university to study, his wife was left alone in their small, rented apartment without anyone to talk to. She did not meet any friends from her home country. She couldn't talk to anyone because she couldn't speak a word of Japanese. She got so sad and depressed the first few weeks she was in Nagoya. Then, she meets Keiko Sato and her friends at Hiroba. Keiko knew how to speak a  little Thai which is similar to Lao. She finally could talk to someone and Keiko helped her get started on her Japanese. They made her happy.


A year later, she had a baby.  It was difficult to study a new language with a baby. But, thanks to Keiko and Hiroba, they helped her out and made life a little easier for the new mother in her new home.


Keiko, a native of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture knew how it felt to be alone and lonely in a place far away from home. Keiko is an only child, orphaned by her parents and also a stranger in conservative and traditional Nagoya. 


She shared the same feelings with Mrs. Dao  and the other foreigners she met at Nagoya University struggling to learn Japanese with their babies in tow. She could see herself in them and  without second doubt she did the unthinkable, a menial job most would consider in Japan. She thought of offering free babysitting services to them while they studied Japanese.  


Along with friends Keiko Tamaoka and Nami Yatabe, the three founded Hiroba in 2003. Hiroba means open space in Japanese. Hiroba babysits for foreigners,  mostly Asians whose spouses are busy studying as student scholars of  Nagoya University.  Hiroba does this with just three or four members.   They could not attract other Japanese women to become members as most want to associate only with the blond gaijin (foreigner) and practice speaking English. Only a few have the genuine heart to help Asians and help improve their communication skills in Japanese. Aside from babysitting, Hiroba also organizes international cooking classes where foreigners can share their culinary expertise to other foreigners.


"Foreigners need to study Japanese to survive. They also need to make new friends so they won't feel alone. Mothers and fathers  have to be without their babies for a while so they can relax a bit and enjoy family life in a foreign country," explains Keiko.


Unknown to foreigners, they are lucky to be getting this type of volunteer service in Japan. Keiko says, "Babysitting is a menial job. Nobody likes to do this but we do it because it makes us happy. We are happy to see our foreigner friends smiling when they start making some progress in their Nihonggo. We are happy too to have contributed a little to their kids' growth." 


Babies of foreign students can also be put into hoikuen (daycare) but it requires money. The best ones have long waiting lists. It can be tough for a foreigner used to having their family around for support in their native country,  come here and realize that they are alone in their daily struggles about taking care of their family's health problems, feeding their family and finding good friends they can trust. 


Keiko herself went through the same situation and had the same tough challenges when she went to Thailand to join her husband who had to be relocated on business. Her two small boys were preschoolers at that time. The two other Hiroba founders Keiko Tamaoka and Nami Yatabe also had a chance to live in other foreign countries and they know the huge challenge of raising a family away from home. But the difference  was there was a strong support for Japanese wives from their husbands' Japanese companies. 


For the Asian foreign scholars and their spouses however, it is altogether different. Most have trouble finding a support group because there are no formal organizations or groups  to join which have the same ethnic background, have the same interests and level of education. Hiroba tries hard to provide this kind of support.


This year, Hiroba is on its eighth year of volunteer service and Keiko decided to visit families of scholars who have since returned to their home countries. She went to Indonesia and reconnected with the families and their grown kids whom she had a chance to take care of when they were babies in Japan. When she met them again, Keiko and the families she visited were very happy. The reunion brought back many wonderful memories of those days in Nagoya  where they were once forgotten strangers but with Keiko's and Hiroba's help, they have survived their ordeals as  foreigners and have come to love Nagoya as their second home.


* His real name was not used to protect his privacy.