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Friday, Jan. 5, 2007


Latin American NPO builds bridges

Staff writer

FUKUOKA -- International exchange groups in Japan tend to fall into two categories. The first are local government- or corporate-sponsored organizations. Members meet at luxury hotels, publish glossy newsletters and represent the creme de la creme of Japan and the foreign community.

News photo
Tiempo Iberamericano, a Fukuoka-based exchange organization, offers a broad range of Latin American cultural activities, including art classes. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIEMPO IBERAMERICANO

The second are underfunded, understaffed and overworked nonprofit organizations. Members are hardworking and committed to international exchanges, but never have enough money for a new computer. They are often viewed warily or with disdain by members of the first group.

And then there is Tiempo Iberamericano in Fukuoka. The brainchild of Santiago Herrara from Argentina, this Latin American cultural center will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, having become one of Japan's most well-known NPOs among those of Latin American descent, not only in Kyushu and Japan but also abroad.

Highly organized and professional, Tiempo nevertheless retains the community feel of a cantina or cafe in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. Located in Fukuoka's trendy Tejin district, Tiempo offers courses in Spanish, Portuguese and French, all of which are taught by native speakers.

"Over the past 10 years, we've probably had more than 4,000 students attend language and culture classes. Of these, I'd say about 1,600 students have come here specifically to learn Spanish or Portuguese," Herrara said.

The Spanish-language equivalent of the English TOEFL exam is called the DELE (Diploma de Espanol como Lengua Extranjera) exam. Administered by the Instituto Cervantes and Spain's Education and Culture Ministry, it is the only internationally recognized certification of Spanish-language proficiency.

"In Japan, the Spanish Embassy facilitates the exam and we persuaded them to start it here in Kyushu several years ago. Finally though, Instituto Cervantes has announced they will open a Tokyo center in 2007," Herrara said.

In addition to language classes, students at Tiempo can also learn flamenco, salsa, tango, Latin and jazz dance, as well as cumbia and other South American folk dances. Flamenco guitar, Columbian and Venezuelan harp, as well as percussion classes are taught as well.

And some 300 musicians and performers have given performances at Tiempo, including the legendary Cuban group Juan Formell and Los Van Van.

But the biggest of Tiempo's annual events is the Isla de Salsa, a two-day Carribean music, dance and food festival held each August on a beach near Fukuoka. Last year, 3,500 people took part and Herrara said more would likely have come had the first day not been canceled due to a typhoon. In the past, Isla de Salsa events have drawn 5,000 people or more.

"It's not all dance and music, though. We offer local residents workshops and seminars. At one workshop, an Iraqi painter showed how the Middle East, not just Arabs, has influenced Spain throughout history, while Spanish philosopher Enrique Unamuno, the great-grandson of the famous Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, conducted a seminar," Herrara said.

Despite its nonprofit status, from the beginning, Herrara and Tiempo have gone out of their way to maintain good relations with both the Fukuoka government and the diplomatic corps in Tokyo.

"But we don't get financial support from any official government body. Our budget comes from our activities and from individual supporters," he said.

Fukuoka Prefecture, with a population of just over 5 million, has roughly 38,000 registered foreign residents, but only about 400 are from South America, a tiny number compared with the tens of thousands of Japanese-Brazilians and South American immigrants in Honshu. But Herrara said there are good historical reasons why Fukuoka is the site of Japan's largest independent Latin American culture center.

"Kyushu seems to be the area in Japan that has the strongest historical ties with Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries. Christianity was introduced through Kyushu by a Portuguese, Francis Xavier, in the 16th century, and the Portuguese traded with Japan through Nagasaki in the 16th and early 17th centuries," he said.

In addition, nearly 15,000 people from Kyushu emigrated to South America during the second half of the 20th century, and many Japanese in the Fukuoka region have a relative or a neighbor living in that part of the world.

As Japan debates allowing in large numbers of immigrant laborers, especially from South America, to offset a rapidly declining population and graying society, Herrara said the need for Tiempo Iberamericano and similar organizations that promote grassroots understanding of Latin American culture will continue to grow.

"Unfortunately, there have been (crimes involving Latin Americans in Japan) that focus attention on our dark side. But we at Tiempo notice a difference in attitudes between those Japanese who are more in contact with a society and its culture, and those who are not. People who have such contact with Tiempo Iberamericano are likely to have more moderate responses to certain news items," he said.

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