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Firefighters must be Japanese!


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
Taken from Asahi Shinbun, May 19, 2001:

As fire brigades dry up, policy bars foreigners

Municipalities seeking to strengthen their depleted and aging volunteer firefighting brigades with foreign residents have been stymied by the central government's policy of barring non-Japanese from positions of authority.

The Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications interprets firefighting as a job that involves the enforcement of public power, because firefighters are required to control the area around the scene of a blaze.

The ministry concludes that all firefighters, full-time or part-time, must have Japanese nationality.

This year, several fire stations in Tokyo asked the Tokyo Fire Department for permission to let Korean permanent residents into citizens fire brigades.

Although the fire department had been leading a campaign from January for more citizens to join the brigades, the answer to the stations was ``no.''

``We struggled to find a good way to accept Korean residents, but we just couldn't get over the nationality requirement,'' a Tokyo Fire Department official explained.

The nationality policy, however, is not a legislated clause. It is only a policy.

According to the Fire Service Law, fire brigade members have the authority to tear down buildings and limit citizens' activities at fire scenes. They are considered the same authorized forces as official firefighters working full-time.

For these reasons, many municipal governments have adhered to the nationality policy.

But there are exceptions. The town of Sanada in Nagano Prefecture accepted an Australian operator of an English conversation center into the fire brigade three years ago.

When the town government received the Australian's application to join the brigade, it consulted the former Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry replied that the matter ``should be handled with care,'' but also said the final decision is up to the municipal government.

So the town accepted the application.

``We also took into account the fact that the Australian is married to a Japanese, and that he is thinking of living here permanently,'' a town official said.

Other non-Japanese have been successful. In Otsu, an American joined a local fire brigade in 1992 and served for five years. In Haki, Fukuoka Prefecture, a New Zealand native was a member of a local fire brigade for a year.

While the activities of the fire brigades depend largely on the volunteer spirit, the members are given the status of special public officials of the municipality.

The brigade chiefs appoint the members, who are generally local residents or those who commute to the municipalities. Most municipalities, with a few exceptions including Osaka, have fire brigades. There are about 950,000 members nationwide.

But the Fire Defense Agency, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications, warns it is ``a matter of course to require Japanese nationality for public servants who are authorized to execute public power.''

However, when asked about the municipalities that already have accepted foreigners, the official seemed embarrassed. ``We don't know much about the details.''

Often lost in the wranglings over policy is the main purpose of the brigades: safety.

Issho Kikaku, a civic group that wants Japan to be more culturally diversified, insists the acceptance of foreigners is not only for their sake.

The group says local fire brigades are having difficulty recruiting young people, and says the growing foreign population should be tapped to protect the community.

One reason for the recruitment problem is financial. In Tokyo, for example, rank-and-file members are paid about 40,000 yen a year as a basic reward, plus 2,500 yen for every dispatch to fires and fire drills.

The group will soon submit its proposals, including a request to abandon the nationality requirement imposed on fire brigades, to the central government.

Copyright ツゥ Asahi Shinbun
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