International welfare today needs a “glocal” approach


Japan has seen a sustained rise in the number of foreign residents in recent years and is expecting a further increase against the backdrop of the dwindling labor force caused by the declining birthrate and aging population. On the other hand, foreigners and people with roots in foreign countries who face the variety of issues in everyday life and need social support are quite a few. A specialist in international welfare and international social work, Professor Rumiko Akashi devotes her energy to research aimed at improving the lives of foreign nationals and people with roots in other countries and promoting a multicultural co-creation of the society, as she thinks global society has a responsibility to resolve such issues.

Rumiko Akashi Professor, Department of Social Work, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work After graduating from the Department of Comparative Culture at Sophia University’s Faculty of Foreign Languages and Studies, she earned a master’s degree in political science at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University. She then studied at Columbia University School of Social Work, earning a Master of Philosophy and Master of Science in Social Work, before going on to earn her PhD in Social Work at the same school. Professor Akashi worked in the field of international cooperation or development assistance at UNICEF, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the World Bank Tokyo Office, dealing with such issues as alleviating poverty in Liberia and the Philippines. She then went on to study social work with older adults and international social work in Columbia University, passing the examination required to become a Licensed Master-level Social Worker in the city of New York. Initially joining Meiji Gakuin University as an associate professor in the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work’s Department of Social Work, Professor Akashi took up her current position in April 2015.

When considering support, we need to anticipate their possible return to their home country

Social welfare is a very broad domain encompassing all aspects of people’s lives, although what is generally known are child welfare and welfare for people with disability as such. My own field of specialism is international welfare that goes beyond national borders, involving welfare issues in developing countries and life issues faced by foreign residents and Japanese nationals with roots overseas. I regard support for developing countries as “outbound” social work and support for foreign residents of Japan as “inbound” social work. My research focuses on both aspects.

The number of foreign nationals resident in Japan has been rising over the last decade, but many of them will eventually return to their native countries after living here for a few years. Accordingly, a global perspective to understand such matters as the customs and religion of each individual’s native country is essential for anyone providing them with support. Furthermore, one must ascertain what kind of lifestyle they led before coming to Japan, along with their educational background and strengths, and then to consider support suited to their background. Taking into account the fact that they will one day go back to their native country, one must also consider their life after returning home, even while they are still in Japan. To provide support from this continuum perspective, I believe it is important for us working in the field of international welfare and international social work to adopt a “glocal” approach, in which we examine support for daily life that takes local characteristics into account, informed by our global knowledge.

Issues faced in daily life by Rohingya women living in Japan

Since 2019, my research into international welfare based on a glocal approach has focused on a study of issues faced in daily life by Rohingya women living in Japan.

The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority ethnic group who reside in Myanmar but are denied citizenship and suffer such severe discrimination that they have been described as one of the world’s most persecuted ethnic minorities. Most of you will doubtless be aware from media coverage that numerous Rohingya have fled the country since a 2017 military crackdown by Myanmar’s security forces. Some Rohingya escaped to Japan and are concentrated in a handful of areas in Kanto. I conducted a study by interviewing Rohingya women—especially the mothers of young children—living in those areas about the physical, psychological, and social issues they face in everyday life.

The women I interviewed have acquired a refugee status or fixed-term residency in Japan. Expecting to go on living and raising their children in Japan, these women’s biggest anxiety was whether their children born in Japan will be able to choose to live the same kind of life as Japanese people, without being discriminated against in the future.

The children of the women I talked to had been raised in Japan going to Japanese schools, and quite a few of them could barely speak the Rohingya language. On the other hand, some among their parents’ generation had hardly been able to attend school and harbored worries about their inability to teach their children or to afford the fees to send them to cram school, even if they wanted to. They want their children to be given the same opportunities and options as Japanese children when it comes to pursuing further study and seeking employment. My study found this was the biggest issue these women faced in daily life. This result highlights the need to transform attitudes not only in the realm of welfare and support, but also among the Japanese public as a whole, in a way to promote justice and inclusiveness in society.

A new study of Kurds

In the 2022 academic year, I have a plan to embark on a study of Kurdish people living in Japan and find out the issues they experience in daily life as well as the support they receive.

Kurds are an ethnic group who mainly inhabit a region that spans Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Although they have their own language and culture, there is no Kurdish state, and they are said to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland of their own. Due to constant conflicts with the governments of the countries in which they reside, many Kurds have fled overseas seeking refuge, but not a single Kurd has ever been admitted as a refugee by Japan. Whereas some Rohingya people have been granted the status of residence that authorizes engagement in work and entitles them to social security benefits, Kurds denied recognition as refugees are not the same. Kurdish people hold citizenship of their former places of residence and entered Japan as Turkish or Iranian nationals, for example. As a consequence, there is no statistical data concerning Kurds residing in Japan, making it difficult to see the reality of their situation. Through my research, I wish to shed light on the problems faced by Kurds living in Japan and examine effective means of supporting them.

Learning output drives student growth

At the university, I lead seminars for second- to fourth-year students. In the 2020 academic year, after the outbreak of the pandemic, the student group in my third-year seminar devised and implemented a project focused on providing Japanese language learning support via the internet to children from impoverished households in Cambodia. The students also developed teaching materials and used crowdfunding to finance the project. This project is still ongoing.

In addition, in the 2022 academic year, I am planning to launch a fieldwork program that will see the second-year students connect with Indonesian companies via the net to learn about technical interns. As well as facing mistreatment by the Japanese companies that host them, technical interns also experience issues relating to the substantial loans that they took out before coming to Japan. The Indonesian company with which I will partner to conduct research has put in place a system that does not require interns to borrow money. I believe that encountering such examples of good practice is important for students when thinking about new forms of welfare.

The aspect of seminar-based learning that I emphasize in particular is students’ learning output. Turning what they have learned from readings and in the classroom into output in the form of actual support and gaining first-hand experience from this improves students’ thinking and practical skills, and helps to build their confidence. As there can be as many as 20 students in my seminar classes, a great deal of time and effort is required to enable all of them to advocate for what they each want to do and to consolidate those views into a seminar activity. However, once they succeed in producing the output, the students begin to see for themselves what they want to do in the future. The students in my seminar groups often tell me, “I’ve got my own focus, so I can go on with confidence in even distracting job-hunting.” Every time I hear the ring of confidence in those words, I gain a very real sense of that student’s growth.

The gateway to my career in international welfare research was a ¥100 donation

The catalyst for my pursuing a career in international welfare was a ¥100 donation I made as a third-year elementary school student, when my school was collecting money for UNICEF. My mother told me that UNICEF had also supported Japanese children after World War II, and I resolved that one day I would go to work for UNICEF to repay that debt of gratitude. I studied international politics and international relations at university and graduate school, and after finishing my graduate studies, I realized my long-cherished dream of working for UNICEF.

During my time at UNICEF, I was stationed in the West African country of Liberia, where I was involved in providing support to local children. I also worked on the problem of poverty in developing countries in my subsequent roles at JICA and the World Bank. While actually working in the field, I became aware of my lack of knowledge regarding support and welfare, and realized I wanted to learn more about international welfare. And so I determined to undertake graduate study at Columbia University. The catalyst for my choosing the path of research was a comment one of my professors there wrote on a paper I submitted: “Whether in the U.S. or Japan, you ought to pursue a PhD.” When I later told my professor about that, she replied, “Comments from professors are important for students.” It is because of that professor’s remark that I am where I am now. I still carry that memory with me, so I take great care over my remarks to my own students.

Undertaking “multicultural co-creation of society” with people who have roots overseas

“We’ll do our best to fit into Japanese society and learn how to speak Japanese well. So we want Japanese people to make an effort, too. Please don’t discriminate against us.”

Those are the words of one of the Rohingya women who was kind enough to be interviewed for my study. I have also heard from one of my research partners studying Kurdish people that most Kurds in Japan want to contribute to Japanese society by working and paying taxes here. Many foreign nationals and people with roots overseas undeniably require support to address the variety of issues they face in daily life. However, most of them do not want to receive ongoing support. They want to lead a self-sufficient lifestyle, earning a wage by working. I believe we Japanese must demonstrate greater understanding of the fact that a great many people feel this way.

Multicultural coexistence is a phrase often used to refer to the goal of achieving a situation in which Japanese and foreign nationals live in harmony with one another. However, given that Japan faces ongoing population decline, I believe we should aim to go beyond living with foreign nationals and seek to create society together. We call this “multicultural co-creation of society.” Rather than viewing foreign nationals as workers compensating for a lack of labor, we should regard them as fellow residents of our communities and work with them to shape society. In addition to being supported by society, they also can contribute to society. I believe Japanese people need to transform their attitudes in this way.

Aiming for a society in which people’s true nature can be seen

When I started working for UNICEF, the first thing I signed was a contract in which I pledged not to take orders from any country. I remember the instant I signed that contract, I felt I had become a global citizen. And since then, I have never been conscious of differences in people’s hair or skin color or religion, no matter who I meet. Today, I hope that, as a result of my teaching young people about my research findings in the fields of international welfare and international social work, the number of people who feel the same way as me will increase, thereby creating a society in which people’s true nature can be seen despite physical and other differences.

In the 2021 academic year, the students in my third-year seminar defined their vision for the seminar as becoming personnel who impact people, and worked on activities focused on communicating what they had learned to high school students. Having more than 20 students spread the word about what they each have learned is likely to be far more powerful in terms of raising awareness throughout society than my solo efforts. One of the great thrills of education for me has been watching my students not only learn, but also put what they have learned into practice with an awareness of the need to communicate it to others. I am continuing my day-to-day research and teaching activities with an awareness that, as a university lecturer, my job—indeed, my duty—is to assist in providing my students with a deeper understanding of foreign nationals and others with roots overseas, thereby cultivating individuals who will contribute to building a multicultural society, in which all people can collaborate.

While it is difficult for us to completely eliminate all prejudice, I would like more people to be able to see other people’s true nature, based on an understanding of their own prejudices. Through my education and research work, I intend to continue to contribute to the creation of a society based on multicultural co-creation, in which diversity is a given.