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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005

Ward looks to get word out for foreign kids to get their shots

Suzannah Tartan, an American, has been disregarding notices in Japanese for free vaccinations for her son, Raphael, 4, that were sent from Tokyo's Nakano Ward.

Tartan, an English instructor at Sophia University, did not understand exactly what the notices were saying, but she had already consulted with an English-speaking doctor and decided Raphael would not receive most of the free vaccinations available under the Japanese medical insurance system.

Tartan, 37, said she needed little help from the government, noting most foreign parents do a lot of research because "having babies in foreign countries is a big deal."

But just as vaccinations are vital for Japanese children, they are equally important for foreign kids here.

The number of babies born in Japan to non-Japanese parents more than doubled to 11,157 in 2003 from 5,798 in 1985, the oldest data available, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. In the same period, the total number of babies born in Japan fell by 22 percent to 1.13 million from 1.44 million.

Brazilian babies accounted for 23 percent of foreign babies born in Japan in 2993, followed by Chinese with 21 percent and Korean with 20 percent, according to the ministry.

Wishing to help non-Japanese babies and their parents, Noriko Hayashibe, a 62-year-old Setagaya Ward resident, established the Setagaya Universal Network for United Support in June 2003. The group produces an English-language version of the information kits for vaccinations for eight diseases, including polio, rubella and measles, for Setagaya.

Last April, the group and Setagaya made 100 copies of vaccination booklets, and another 100 copies of books on periodical health checkups for infants.

The ward sends a letter in Japanese to notify parents of the place and time vaccinations will be given as well as a questionnaire to be prewritten for doctor references a few weeks prior to each vaccination and checkup.

It puts a seal in English on the envelopes saying foreign recipients must open the envelopes as they contain important information for their babies.

If recipients request an English-language version, the ward photocopies a page of the booklet and sends it.

Expanding such moves to other areas of Japan would be difficult because the authority for providing vaccination services rests entirely on "about 3,000 municipalities in Japan," reckoned Kosuke Kato, a health ministry official.

The ministry, Kato said, "has no idea which municipalities, if any, are providing English services."

The 47 prefectural governments also have no idea.

Hayashibe perseveres. She has two plans: first, duplicating her success in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area; and making versions in Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish.

She said she will start asking Shinjuku Ward, 10 percent of whose residents are foreign, Minato and other wards for cooperation.

Shinjuku, Adachi, Edogawa, Minato and Toshima wards, the five largest municipalities in Tokyo in terms of foreign residents, offer vaccination notices only in Japanese, officials of each ward said.

The biggest obstacle Hayashibe faces in terms of realizing her plans is money. Setagaya offered only 1 million yen to help. The total cost was 1.18 million yen, so her group had to cover the difference.

Hayashibe plans to ask baby product makers and retailers to help finance the project in return for free advertising in the booklets.

A Korean version of Hayashibe's booklets is also in the works in Setagaya. Ahn So Young, a 42-year-old South Korean mother of two, offered to translate them.

Although Ahn "roughly" understood written Japanese when she received vaccination notices for her 8-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, multilingual versions would be useful for some foreign residents of Japan, especially housewives whose husbands' jobs brought them to Japan, she figured.

Hayashibe and Setagaya Ward did not discuss how to share the cost of producing the Korean version, though the ward seemed interested when Hayashibe presented a sample, she said.

Ahn praises Hayashibe, hoping her group will pave the way for extending multilingual services over a wider area.

"The problems are not limited to Setagaya," she said. "Shinjuku, other wards, and other prefectures, like Osaka, must have these problems, too."

At the same time, she realizes the difficulty of persuading municipalities that the project is worth spending money on.

Hayashibe said the most frequently heard excuse is: "Why should we do it? The United States, France and Germany don't offer (such notices) in Japanese."

"So if Japan does it, we'll be known as the most advanced country in the world," she said. "That's why we should do it."

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