February 2018

Our monthly online newsletter, "L'ESPACE".
L'ESPACE is a diverse French word that means place, area, cosmos, and gap.

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Hiragana Net Co., Ltd.

- Creating a More Enjoyable & Livable Society by Bringing Non-Japanese & Japanese People Together -

To Close Up’s readership this month, we introduce Hiragana Net Co., Ltd., a company whose establishment grew from the founders’ desire to “create a highly-livable society in which non-Japanese and Japanese people could live together.” Hiragana Net’s core members met one another initially when volunteering to teach the Japanese language to non-Japanese people, and the company itself was subsequently established so as to engage in a range of activities as a social business on a level that was in excess of what could be achieved voluntarily. On this occasion, we had the opportunity to speak in detail about the variety of activities that the company undertakes with Hiragana Net CEO Ms. Hiroko Toshima, Director Ms. Yaeko Yoshizawa and employee Ms. Akiko Iguchi.

From left to right, Ms. Yoshizawa, Ms. Toshima and
Ms. Iguchi at the Hiragana Net office in Sumida Ward.

Please tell me what led to the establishment of Hiragana Net.

Ms. Toshima

As a company, Hiragana Net was established by Ms. Yoshizawa and myself in April of 2012. Prior to its founding, we had originally met one another at “Nihongo Circle KONNICHIWA,” a volunteer Japanese language class held in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. As to why I personally volunteered at that language class which had been established by Ms. Yoshizawa, I had previously lived overseas as a “foreigner” (in America) when accompanying my husband on an overseas work posting. Once I had returned to Japan, that experience got me interested in doing something to assist non-Japanese people living here. Thus, I started by getting involved as a volunteer with “Nihongo Circle KONNICHIWA.” Following on, I then got involved with another organization that offered educational support to non-Japanese kids who were attending Japanese schools. That is how it all started. Having gotten thus involved, I came to realize that the challenges facing non-Japanese people in this country were not limited to the concerns of children alone. Rather, I discovered that the non-Japanese parents of such children also struggled with a wide variety of different issues. For example, such parents often couldn’t read circulars that were sent home with children from their kindergartens and schools. That meant that mixups sometimes occurred as children forgot to take something important to school with them, or because they ended up taking something other than what had been prescribed. Anyway, after coming into contact with a number of weeping foreign mothers who were struggling with living here in Japan, I became even more resolved to do something to assist them. That is how Ms. Yoshizawa and myself ended up establishing Hiragana Net. Additionally, to comment on our current situation, the three main members of our team are Ms. Yoshizawa and myself, and we were later joined by Ms. Iguchi. We also have some other Japanese, Thai and Mongolian staff as well as some external Japanese language teachers, etc. All in all, our operations involve about 10 people in total.

In establishing Hiragana Net, why did you decide to form a formal company rather than setting up as either a non-profit organization or as a volunteer group?

Ms. Toshima

There are many NPOs and volunteer groups whose activities have some degree of involvement with non-Japanese people. That being said, when establishing Hiragana Net, I felt some incongruity with the structure of such organizations and their ideas that “those who provide assistance were supposed to be Japanese” and “those who receive assistance were supposed to be non-Japanese.” As an organization, we wanted both Japanese and non-Japanese stakeholders to be able to participate while feeling that they were on an equal footing with one another. Thus, in providing our services, we wanted to have a structure in which there were clearly defined exchanges and considerations occurring irrespective of whether stakeholders were Japanese or not. In setting ourselves up, as to what we aimed to achieve as individuals who previously encountered a range of different issues through our experiences of engaging in volunteer activities, we hoped to be able to both improve the quality of life of non-Japanese people living in Japan, and to create opportunities for non-Japanese and Japanese to come into contact with one another. To achieve such aims, we commenced our operations with two projects. The first was our Minna de sampo (“Walking with Everyone”) events where both non-Japanese and Japanese could enjoy themselves by walking throughout areas of the city in accompaniment with one another. That project was handled by Ms. Yoshizawa because she has an extensive knowledge of various places within Tokyo. Our other initial project was a cooking class that I ran along with a website called “Hiragana Recipe,” both of which introduced home-style Japanese cooking to non-Japanese people.

Hiragana Net’s popular Minna de sampo (“Walking with Everyone”)
events have already reached the milestone of being held
more than 120 times.
©Hiragana Net

The cooking class that Ms. Iguchi runs as instructor.
The students are shown making Osechi ryori
in preparation for the new year.
©Hiragana Net

As a company, when starting out did your operations proceed smoothly to plan?

Ms. Toshima

As a company that was established as an extension of what were initially volunteer activities, when we first started holding our own events, we worried somewhat about how to go about setting our participation fees. We initially established a policy of charging participants ¥500 (a single coin) to take part in what we were doing, however, that meant that our income didn’t increase at all during the first year of business and we actually ended up losing money. For our second year of business as such, we felt that we had to do something in order to make the company a going concern. Thus, using Ms. Yoshizawa’s background as a writer and my own experience in the editing of magazines, we decided to take on work in the development of catalogs and posters, irrespective of whether or not such projects were directly related to non-Japanese people. By our third year in business, we found ourselves to be in a position where little-by-little Hiragana Net came to be known as a “production company that was also involved in projects that were related to non-Japanese people.” The outcome of that was that bit-by-bit we began to receive requests to create pamphlets and booklets that targeted a non-Japanese readership.

Please tell us about some of the projects in which you have been involved thus far.

Ms. Toshima

For some local retailers’ associations we developed a handbook that summarised how they could best handle Muslim customers who visited their shops. We also developed a guidebook for foreign tourists who were visiting Ginza. To talk about the Ginza project for a moment, the request for us to prepare a guidebook actually started out because the manners of some tourists were causing problems. That being said, we felt that it would be rather rude if we simply produced something that took wayward tourists to task by saying “please don't do this and please don't do that.” Thus, before we did anything we asked a number of foreign residents living in Japan how things could be written in a manner that would make them feel good when reading it. In creating the guidebook, we subsequently took care to convey the message that “Ginza could be enjoyed in a certain way” and that “acting in a certain way was the smart way of doing things.”

Ms. Yoshizawa

In response to a request that we received from the Sumida City Office, we prepared English-language menus for some 90 eateries within the city. What is more, we also developed a website that features information on the various restaurants for whom we prepared the English-language menus. For this financial year, we proposed to the Sumida City Office that they develop some pamphlets that could be used by the different businesses to welcome non-Japanese customers. The result of that idea was that we produced a “How to Booklet” that describes how to eat soba noodles and how to buy meal tickets at ramen restaurants. Other topics covered include how to make best use of Japanese-style pubs and how to behave at public baths, etc. As characters who introduced the different topics in the booklet, we settled on 12 non-Japanese people from 11 different countries. By doing so, what makes the booklet unique is the idea of non-Japanese people disseminating information rather than simply having Japanese characters telling non-Japanese people what to do.

Materials made for inbound tourism. In many cases,
the company is involved from the planning stage of
proceedings as well and not just the creation of materials.
©Hiragana Net

English-language menus produced for restaurants in Sumida Ward.
Pointing finger graphics have also been incorporated
in the menus to highlight allergy issues.
©Hiragana Net

And I also believe that you are putting a fair bit of effort into helping with the adoption of Yasashii Nihongo (“Easy Japanese”)?

Ms. Toshima

At the moment, in the lead up to the Olympics, it is being said that more than any other language, people in this country should be making an attempt to learn English. However, even if my compatriots are able to communicate effectively in English, it certainly isn’t the case that everything will go off smoothly without a hitch. As such, I would like to communicate the message that among foreign tourists to Japan there are those whose English isn’t very good, and individuals who don’t speak the language at all. In light of such a reality, I would like to get the message across to as many people as possible that they should at least try and communicate more richly with overseas visitors by drawing on the use of Yasashii Nihongo (“Easy Japanese”). For example, a moment ago Ms. Yoshizawa mentioned the English-language menus that we developed. On the back of them, we also included a number of simple Japanese phrases that non-Japanese people could use when eating out. If visitors to Japan could use what Japanese they know such as Mizu o kudasai (Please give me another cup of water.), and if they could get a suitable response from Japanese restaurant staff, I think that would provide them with another wonderful memory of their travels.

Ms. Yoshizawa

To talk about non-Japanese people who live here, despite being able to speak Japanese, many feel quite irritated when others persist in trying to address them in English. Up until now, we have run a course entitled, “Interacting with Non-Japanese while avoiding English.” Talking about the near future, we have decided to change the focus of this course a little and rename it “Make Use of Easy Japanese!” To discuss it a little more, after an initial lesson in “Easy Japanese”, while enjoying a meal prepared by one of our staff from Thailand, participants will be given an opportunity to actually communicate using “Easy Japanese”. With the presence of either non-Japanese who either speak Japanese or wish to do so, I think it will be a good opportunity for our Japanese participants to once again consider how they go about interacting with people from other countries.

And Ms. Iguchi, I believe that you now handle the cooking-related projects that Hiragana Net undertakes?

Ms. Iguchi

Yes, I teach Japanese home-style cooking to a number of foreign mothers. In doing so, I must say that I feel very happy when I hear one of them say that they “prepared an evening meal at home that was identical” to what they had learned in my cooking class. At an “international exchange and cooking class” that was held at a private high school in Edogawa Ward in December of last year, we were involved in both the planning and conducting of the event. In order to have the students understand and appreciate some of the cuisine and culture of the Islamic world, on the day in question, we were accompanied by four Muslim women, and together we made and enjoyed lunch from ingredients that are eaten by the followers of Islam. Furthermore, so that the students in attendance would be fully-engaged in what was going on, we arranged things so that the interactions between them and the visitors commenced with a discussion of fashion and the items of makeup used by Muslim women. In that the students said that they found the event “enjoyable and were looking forward to similar occasions in the future,” I personally felt that I learned a lot.

And what activities are you thinking about putting more effort into in the future?

Ms. Yoshizawa

Something that we commenced last year which I would like to focus on more in the future is introducing potential job candidates to potential employers. Due to the nature of our work, on one hand we have many opportunities to hear from non-Japanese people who are seeking employment, while on the other we hear from places of work such as restaurants, etc., who are looking for potential employees. Accordingly, we have pushed forward with what was an introductory service as a business. To talk about the situation at Hiragana Net, for some time now we have been running a series of regular free seminars that go by the name of “Job Classes for Non-Japanese.” Through these events, we have taught people the language and manners that are necessary in Japanese workplaces. You could say that the job-introductory services that we are now offering have grown out of that. What we are aiming for is a society in which non-Japanese can live happily. With that in mind, what is most important is that individuals are able to achieve a sense of economic independence. I would like to conscientiously push forward with what we have been doing in order that, through our assistance, people can be fortunate enough to find somewhere where they can work long-term.

Please tell me what the strongest appeal point of Hiragana Net is.

Ms. Toshima

I would say that our strength lies in the links that we enjoy with non-Japanese people who are living in Japan. When we are confronted with a proposal that deals with non-Japanese people, we are able to refer to such contacts and get their opinions, have them participate in what we are doing, and actually have them work with us to create solutions. In recent times, I get the sense that more and more opportunities are coming our way because of the sense of “sounding out Hiragana Net as a starting point if something involves non-Japanese.” If we receive inquiries as to whether we can do something or not, I would like to be in a position to be able to quickly respond with plans that are uniquely ours.

A mothers’ gathering that commenced from a proposal
from Ms. Zaya Aihara, a Mongolian member of staff
©Hiragana Net

There are also events where non-Japanese people
teach Japanese participants how to cook cuisine from
their homeland. The picture shows a cooking class
being given by Ms. Edd Shimizu, a Thai member of staff.
©Hiragana Net