SAGA was developed in 2001 as a way to combine a number of the city and the wards international exchange programs. It was developed from and combined under the City of Saitama – International Division. SAGA’s finances are 80% provided by the city, 20% by its membership. SAGA’s mission is to make international exchange comfortable for the city’s one million Japanese residents and 15,000 registered foreigners (mainly Chinese, Korean, and Phillipino).
SAGA’s office is made up of five people, but the organization is built around attracting members (a financial commitment) and volunteers for its various committees. At the moment, there are 860 members – which SAGA considers high level for an organization which is new. However, the number of volunteers is less than that. There are three types of volunteers – translators, events, and host families.
SAGA’s projects and events are run by a Board of Directors headed by the Mayor of the City and a group of 16 business people and heads of companies. There are five committees: General Affairs, Planning, PR, Internal Exchange, and International Exchange. Each committee is made up of 15 – 20 people and are selected by application from the membership. Most committee members are Japanese, are retired people in their 50s/60s, and/or stay at home moms in their 30s/40s. Recently, SAGA enacted a rule to maintain two year duration on each committee per member.
SAGA offers a number of events throughout the year including Welcome Parties, the International Friendship Fair, and Sister City Sports Exchanges. They provide information for foreign residents by the Puratto Salon, a conversation exchange location, Japanese Language Classes, and Consultation Windows – which are offered by the cities and located around the prefecture. When new residents need assistance they can find it at these windows – where they can be connected to someone speaking their language – either by phone or in person. Eight languages are offered.
The International Friendship Fair is SAGA’s largest event bringing in 80,000 people in a two day period during Golden Week and using 160 volunteers to run the event. Stage shows, children’s games, ethnic foods, etc. are part of the event. (It actually happens to be today but with the ‘can’t use the train rule’, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get there.)
Interestingly to me, SAGA’s use of Saitama City’s Sister Cities is only for youth sports exchanges and short term adult exchanges. They do not facilitate an Assistant Language Teacher program. However as Ryoko mentioned, the Sister City relationship is ‘held’ by the International Division of Saitama City and various organizations can access it for their different purposes. Public Schools might be facilitating an ALT exchange through the Sister Cities – which in thinking about is how it happened for me in Himeji – it was through the Board of Education.
Our most interesting conversation came when we discussed the challenges for SAGA and various organizations –
1. Funding. With 80% coming from the city government, they are constantly in danger of having their funding cut. 20% is from membership – but as a new organization they can’t raise yearly rates too high because they are still trying to attract members and volunteers. It seems they would make some money from the International Friendship Fair – from organizations who will buy tables – but entry for patrons is free.
They are in constant battle to figure out how to continue their funding and provide new services for the community.
2. Volunteers. We touched on the topic of volunteering in Japan and Ryoko confirmed that it is still not very popular with young people because their schedules do not allow for it. As she mentioned most of the volunteers – especially on the committees – are older and have strong opinions. For SAGA it has been difficult to attract volunteers to join as new members of the committees, to keep the committees fresh, and to cultivate the current members to act as leaders of the committees. She mentioned that most people become involved because of someone they know working as a volunteer.
Their difficulty in attracting and retaining volunteers – particularly younger people – fits with the Japanese low volunteerism situation. However, SAGA has an additional problem of trying to reach out into the foreign community to recruit volunteers – particularly for translation – but also to become participants and members. She mentioned that while there are 15,000 registered foreigners in the city, there are many people who stay illegally as well. They do provide services to these residents as well – however mainly because they have no way to tell who these folks are. I do wonder if that would change if they had a way of finding out?
We talked about how SAGA works among all of the other International Exchange organizations in Japan – there are other cities organizations, prefecture organizations, private organizations, etc. There is no formal network of these organizations in Saitama – and while they do communicate sometimes, there is very little communication between these organizations in various prefectures.
One exception to that is when SAGA visited Gunma Prefecture Center for International Exchange, which is apparently famous in Japan because of their higher level of foreign residents. In Japan, the average of foreign residents is 1% of the entire population – Saitama City’s distribution is about this as well. However, Gunma has a 2-3% distribution made up of mainly Brazilian residents. Most of the signs in Gunma read in both Japanese and Portuguese. The large occurrence of Brazilian residents has tied to a period in Japan when the Japanese leaders suggested that Japan residents could find a better life abroad – cheaper living, better land, etc. So many Japanese people moved – particularly to South America. In the 1990’s when Japan revised its immigration, tightening it up, the second and third generations were granted exceptions and were provided with easier immigration rules.
SAGA reached out to the Gunma Prefecture Organization to learn more about what they are doing and how they are doing it – and one of their learnings was the partnership between the prefectural university and the organization. Essentially, one professor at the university devised a service learning program whereby students in their majors provide services for the foreign community, such as medical exams and information or education tutoring in math and science, and receive credit and a grade for their work. Saitama City also has a national university and SAGA is looking into how they can work together.
A few take-away thoughts:
*New, small organizations in Japan are under the same funding and volunteer crunches as organizations in the US experience. However, it is further complicated by the lack of foundation funding, as well as by the lack of volunteers. Organizations truly exist at a local level – and while SAGA is somewhat exceptional because they are tied to the city government, it is not clear that they actually have a voice or can lobby for much more than their funding.
*Lack of a network for these types of organizations is interesting because they really are so rampant and spread across Japan. My sense is that if they could learn from one another, combine resources, experiences – there might be a slight improvement in being a foreigner in Japan.
*As with most involvement in organizations, folks who are involved in SAGA are most likely those who are already ‘enlightened’ or have an international way of thinking. The question is how to involve those who don’t.
*We touched on the fact that children really enjoy the Int’l Friendship Fair and may be the ones getting the most out of it. The question though was how to keep that spark in the young child and cultivate it during the years they are most busy and focused on their education and sports?
*Which leads to the reality that with such an aging population – who make up most of the volunteers – what happens when these folks are no longer active, but a younger population hasn’t been engaged in this type of work?