As pandemic responses have cut off many families and workers in East Asia, Buddhist temples have stepped in to offer much-needed support to those facing difficulties. In the eastern Japanese city of Nasushiobara, in Tochigi Prefecture, a 43-year-old Vietnamese nun, Thich Tam Tri, has opened a new temple—Tochigi Daion-ji—aiming to aid Vietnamese workers who are struggling to get by.
The temple is the second that Tam Tri has established. Her first temple opened in 2018 in Honjo, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo. According to the nun’s records, the number of Vietnamese people seeking help in Honjo has tripled in the last four years, demonstrating the urgency of need elsewhere in the country.
Tam Tri commented: “An increasing number of Vietnamese people in Japan are having a tough time as they have nowhere to go. I’d like the temple to offer support as a sort of sanctuary for these individuals.” (The Mainichi)
Even before the pandemic, Tam Tri offered support and assistance to Vietnamese nationals in need in Japan. Some had lost jobs and needed temporary assistance. Others needed help returning to Vietnam. But since the start of the pandemic, Japan has enacted some of the strictest travel measures in the world, leaving many Vietnamese people stranded. Today, the Honjo temple houses some 60–70 people, even though it was designed to accommodate just 20.
Michio Tomita, 72, a resident of the Tokyo suburb Kodaira offered to help the temple, lending the use of a house he owns further north of Tokyo. Tomita said he saw the hard work of Vietnamese technical workers through his paint-coating business, noting: “I was moved that young people were throwing themselves at the work with their utmost effort in a foreign country. If such youth are having a hard time, I thought that I wanted them to make use of the house.” (The Mainichi)
Tomita’s house had been left abandoned after the death of the previous tenant. While the garden had become overgrown in the time it lay unused, after a month of work—largely by Vietnamese volunteers—it was ready to be used by the temple.
Ho Van Kha, 27, is a Vietnamese national who lost his job due to the pandemic. While he was able to find new work, he also took part in the cleaning of the house for the temple’s use: “While there are many kind Japanese people, I was relieved to find a place where Vietnamese people can spend time together while helping each other out.” (The Mainichi)
Thich Tam Tri was raised by a single mother in rural Vietnam and became a nun at the age of seven. She went on to study Japanese at university and moved to Japan in 2001 for further research on Buddhism. In the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011, she began efforts to help Vietnamese people in Japan. Since then, Thich Tam Tri has expanded her efforts, focusing in particular on ensuring that Vietnamese people who die in Japan receive a proper funeral and that their remains are returned to their families.
In recent years, a growing number of deaths have been by suicide. “This may be due to the influence of stress due to life in a foreign country amid the coronavirus crisis,” Thich Tam Tri said. (The Mainichi)
Vietnamese were the fastest growing group of foreigners in Japan in 2019. That year, they surpassed Chinese as the largest foreign group living in the country. They have been lured by the draw of higher wages, but many found that their jobs didn’t work out or they were burdened by high fees to recruitment agencies. as of the end of December 2020, there were 448,053 Vietnamese nationals living in Japan, a 10-fold rise from 2010, according to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan.
Japan has recorded 1,727,229 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 18,360 deaths reported, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Recent case numbers have been low, with 104 new cases reported on 5 December after a record high of 25,992 on 20 August. As news of the new Omicron variant has spread, Japan has barred all non-resident foreigners from entering the country. Nonetheless, Japan has already reported its first case of a Japanese national with the Omicron variant, a man in his 30s who had recently traveled to Italy.
Vietnamese nun opens 2nd temple in east Japan to shelter struggling trainees amid COVID (The Mainichi)
Vietnamese nun in Tokyo prays for compatriots who lost lives at work in Japan, fearing more to come (The Japan Times)
Japan’s travel ban spells anguish for foreigners, businesses (Al Jazeera)
Gov’t confirms 1st Japanese infected with Omicron variant (Kyodo News)
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