Showing appreciation / Former Vietnamese refugee gives homeless a helping hand

March 27, 2006

Showing appreciation / Former Vietnamese refugee gives homeless a helping hand

Hiroko Ihara / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

In 1979, a Vietnamese fled his homeland in a boat to escape
religious persecution. After being plucked from the sea and brought to
Japan, he eventually moved from refugee status to naturalized Japanese
citizen and adopted the name Shin Takayama.

Now Takayama, 49, is showing his appreciation to Japan for giving
him a new start in life by supporting day laborers and other homeless
in the Airin district in Nishinari Ward, Osaka.

His primary work, he says, is at Tabiji no Sato (Home of Travelers),
a local office of the Society of Jesus, where he acts as a liaison
among 11 local supporting organizations and outside concerns. Besides
receiving and distributing food and clothing to homeless people, his
office also hosts programs for student and adult volunteers.

In his spare time, he prepares hot meals and gives free haircuts.

In the district, about 2,000 unemployed people live in tents,
cardboard shacks, on the streets or in shelters. They are generally in
their 50s or 60s, but they often look older because of the hard life
they have endured.

"Many of them are unhappy with their current situations and want to
live independently," Takayama said. "I hope to help as many of them as
possible as a way of returning the kindness that was shown to me by so
many Japanese."

Originally from Bien Hoa Province in southern Vietnam, Takayama
descends from eight generations of Catholics. When the Vietnam War
ended in 1975, his family was persecuted by the Communist government,
which took a hostile attitude toward religious organizations.

"I wanted to become a Catholic priest," he said. "But Catholicism
was banned and religious schools were closed. Catholics were not
allowed to enter university."

Around that time, two of his younger brothers were drafted into
military service and were expected to be sent to fight in Cambodia.

Takayama's parents then decided that it would be best if their three sons fled overseas. Takayama was 23 at the time.

In preparation for his journey, Takayama bought a boat, an engine
and other equipment and found a pilot. He made careful plans about the
time and point of departure.

"Everything had to be done in secret. Otherwise, we'd be caught and
locked up," he said. "Even my parents didn't know when we would go
until right before we left."

The wooden boat, posing as a craft delivering palm tree seedlings,
left Ho Chi Ming City on Oct. 22, 1979, right after a typhoon, when the
coastal watch was lax. The boat traveled along the coast picking up
passengers–44 relatives and three other people–in small groups.

The boat, slightly more than 10 meters long and about two meters
wide, was jampacked with people as it headed out into the South China

Not long after if left Vietnamese waters, the boat nearly capsized
in a storm. The group also suffered from fatigue, thirst and other

On the fifth day, they were rescued by a Norwegian freighter bound for Yokohama.

After landing, they were sent to a refugee camp in Nagasaki
Prefecture, where they lived for about three years. While at the camp,
Takayama learned Japanese and various trades.

He then worked on construction sites in the Kanto region, where his
coworkers helped him with his Japanese and shared their food.

In 1989, 10 years after fleeing Vietnam, Takayama entered the
Society of Jesus where he underwent nine years of training, including
five years of study at Sophia University, to become a Catholic priest.
He became a Japanese citizen in 1996.

After working at churches in Hiroshima and Tokyo, he became the
director of Tabiji no Sato in April 2004, when his predecessor retired
due to poor health.

"For refugees, it's important to adapt to society," Takayama said.
"But many are not capable of that without proper support. I was lucky,
and I'm safe now."

Seven of his eight siblings left Vietnam. Four live in the United States, three in Japan.

He said: "We refugees risked our life to escape Vietnam and made
great efforts to settle in a new place. But we sometimes wonder if it
was worth the effort because [the Vietnamese] government's attitude
toward refugees has changed."

At first the refugees were treated as criminals, but as the
Vietnamese government began embracing the world market, it began to
allow Vietnamese living abroad to reenter the country. "Refugees are
heroes if they bring money into the country," he said.

Concerning his current work, he says the Airin district has declined
dramatically since the winter of 1989, when he first became a volunteer

"At the time, the construction industry was booming, and day
laborers could find work easily. The daily wage was about 12,000 yen,
plus lunch," he said. "Now, it's less than 10,000 yen a day, and there
are very few jobs."

Indeed, it is estimated that as many as 350 people died on the
streets in a recent winter. He prepares gyudon (bowl of stewed beef and
rice) and other hot meals four times a week. On cold days, he sometimes
serves meals to more than 1,000 people.

Twice a week, at the Furusato no Ie rest station in the district, he
gives haircuts to 15-30 people a day after they select a style from six
possible choices.

"He's good. I use the service every two months," said a 55-year-old homeless man while stroking his neatly groomed hair.


Welcoming volunteers


Takayama also hosts volunteers in the district at his facility.

A group of first-year students from Hiroshima Gakuin High School in
Hiroshima stayed at the facility in late December to learn about
different aspects of society.

During the two-day program, they cooked and served meals to homeless
people and joined a night watch to monitor their conditions and provide
blankets and food. Takayama also told the students about the personal
histories of some of the homeless people and the difficulties that led
to their current situations.

"When I arrived here, I thought it was an awful place, and felt
guilty about my own comfortable living environment," wrote one of the
students in an essay about his experience with the program.

His view changed, however, after he got to know the people and the
district. "I was exhausted by the hard work, but happy at the same
time, although I don't know how much it helps," he wrote.

Takayama said: "IT businesses and major firms are earning big money,
but the people here don't benefit from it. Once they're out of work,
they aren't welcome at home and their family falls apart. They aren't
given another chance."

"It's a problem of Japanese society," he said. "They are experienced
workers and want to show their skills. It's a matter of pride, not
money. I'm afraid the Japanese government's plan of accepting more
foreigners to do menial work will simply reduce their chances."

(Mar. 27, 2006)

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