Emotional support and searching for homes: What I learned from the lives of foreign workers in Japan


Moe Amano is active with NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents, which helps foreigners living in Japan find housing. There, she works to provide consultation services for Chinese-speaking foreigners. What she saw through such activities was the harsh reality that foreign workers experience. Ms. Amano, who says she is always thinking about what she can do for foreigners who are still unable to even say their name in Japanese, despite having lived here for over ten years, tells us what it means to provide emotional support.

Moe Amano Fourth-year student, Department of Economics, Faculty of Economics Moe Amano was born and raised in China, but moved to Japan when she was in fourth grade. In her third year of high school she decided she would eventually make a living as an entrepreneur, and so entered the Department of Economics in the Faculty of Economics. She became involved with NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents as part of an internship in 2018, her first year of college, and she was appointed as the youngest staff member there in October of the same year. Since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she has started an online shop for selling accessories, for which she is responsible for everything from item procurement to sales. She was awarded the 1st Meiji Gakuin University Volunteer Award in the Practice category, and she has completed the Meiji Gakuin University Educational Cooperative Volunteer Certificate Program. Her favorite phrase is “The greatest failure in life is to never take on challenges.”

Just what am I?

I first became involved with NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents through my participation in the volunteer center’s “1 Day for Others” project right after starting college. This program allows students to experience spending a day volunteering or otherwise contributing to society at a local or corporate NPO or NGO, and it’s a wonderful way to volunteer without the usual formalities. In my case, in May 2018 I participated in the Earth Festival Multicultural Exchange, a forum hosted by the Earth Festival Kanagawa Executive Committee. Being the child of a Chinese–Japanese mother and a Chinese father, I was naturally interested in the theme of that forum.

Since entering college, whenever I introduce myself and mention that I am Chinese, I’m often met with surprise and comments like “Your Japanese is so good!” I went to an integrated junior and senior high school, so I’d spent six years with the same friends in the same environment. Comments like this therefore made me stop and think: “Just what am I?” I consider myself Chinese, but Japanese has now become something like a native language. I therefore started to wonder which country was “my” country. Carrying such doubts while participating in the forum, I met many people who were living in Japan, but had roots in Korea, the Philippines, and other countries. This was nearly the first opportunity I’d had for interacting with people having foreign roots, other than my own family. On the day of the event, I prepared to guide participants and perform other tasks. Considering how I would be with people in the same situation as me, doing the same thing at the same place and time, worrying about what country I most associate with started to feel silly. After all, we’re all Earthlings! This experience got me interested in foreigners living in Japan, like myself, and this led me to participating in NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents.

First, getting people to understand me

When I first met the director of NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents, she told me, “Language is a tool. The most important thing is your heart. If you have heart, you can handle things, even if you have problems with the language.” From these words, I became convinced that NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents is an organization that is seriously tackling multicultural coexistence.

I first participated as an intern from late July to late August 2018, and officially became a staff member from October of that year. NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents office is located in the Kannai district of Yokohama’s Naka Ward. My duties include interpreting for Chinese speakers, helping them fill out the forms needed to apply for public housing, accompanying them to explanatory meetings before they move in, and helping them to submit the necessary documents. Many of those coming to the office are Chinese people working in Yokohama’s Chinatown.

I’ve worked with people who have lived in Japan for ten to fifteen years, but still don’t know how to say their own name in Japanese. They are able to get by in the Chinese community of Chinatown, but there they speak only Chinese, so they never seem to learn Japanese. It isn’t that they don’t want to, they just don’t have the opportunity. To set those people at ease before we talk, I introduce myself in Chinese when we first meet. We talk about work, and family, and even hobbies and favorite foods. Anything, really.

Possibly because many of those I speak to are around the same age as my parents, after getting to know each other I might find myself explaining how high-school entrance exams work in Japan. I sometimes bring homemade snacks for us to eat together. I’ve even had clients come not because they were having any particular problems, but because they just wanted to chat with me. It makes me incredibly happy when that happens.

What’s important is whether you’re getting your meaning across

One time, while helping someone fill in some forms, I noticed them writing a name in a box labelled “Name of the person in question,” but upon closer inspection I couldn’t be sure they were writing the correct name. To make sure, I first had to explain to them what “person in question” means. When explaining things like that, it’s extremely important to keep the explanations simple. By simple I don’t mean exaggerated talking or gesturing. For example, if I need to explain what a “financial institution” is, I’ll rephrase that as “a convenience store, or the post office, or a bank, or some other place where you can pay bills.” Sometimes the meanings of words that I’ve come to take for granted are incomprehensible to the person I’m talking to. What’s important in those cases is to focus on using words that will get my point across, rather than communicating beautifully. Sometimes I can best see what I should be doing by imagining the person and myself switching circumstances.

Sometimes when trying to help someone with a rental, the landlord will refuse them because the applicant is a foreigner. I think this happens because the landlord has a negative stereotype about foreigners. Maybe the landlord once spoke with a person from that country, and got a bad impression about them, so now they apply that bad impression to everyone from that country? That can happen when what you want to say, or what the other person wants to say, doesn’t get across, or when the other person hears it in a way that it wasn’t intended. This concept of the importance of getting across what you’re trying to say is very important when considering problems related to foreign workers living in Japan.

I want to continue tackling problems as a businessperson

I have spent much of my time at college studying multiculturalism and working at NPO Kanagawa Housing Support Center for Foreign Residents, but after graduating I plan to work in the real estate industry. As the problems of declining birthrates and an aging population worsen in the future, Japan will need to increase numbers of foreign workers. There will thus be increasingly many people who consider Japan as their second home, and from a business perspective I want to support them as they look to buy a house or otherwise find a place to live. To that end, I am spending my days studying to acquire qualifications as a residential land and building trader. I came to think this way from learning basic concepts of economics and management in the Faculty of Economics. Things I learned in my first two years, like game theory and the “prisoner’s dilemma” problem, are good examples. From the process of finding patterns in the psychological trends of consumers and performing related calculations and reflections, I have learned to objectively grasp concepts.

There’s now less than half a year left of my life as a student, but I will value every one of those remaining days as I deepen the learning I’ve received at my beloved Shirokane campus, so that I can start my career as a businessperson as best I can.