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Kobe Group Provides Computer Access to the Disadvantaged

"After having worked with big media, I found much shining information provided from grassroots publications," says Junichi Hibino, executive director of Tour de Communication, a Kobe-based computer technology support organization. "What I saw and covered as a big newspaper reporter was just a small part of the picture. Grassroots media sometimes provide surprisingly insightful coverage for the public. They don't prevail simply because they don't have a big medium."

Hibino quit a prestigious reporter job of major newspaper Mainichi in 1995, and now heads the organization that provides computer technology to nonprofits and the disadvantaged in Nagata Ward, the poorest community of Kobe. He is one of many who changed life because of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake that killed more than 6,400 people, or precisely, because of the enoumous volunteer activities that followed. After working on community radio FM-YY and other media related projects, he now focuses on bringing computers and the Internet to the masses.

The three-staff-member Tour de Communication, with support from dozens of volunteers, organizes 13 computer classes every week for community people, especially the disadvantaged foreign residents in the Nagata area. They recycle old computers for the poor and community groups. They send mentors to nonprofits to install computers and to teach how to use them. Hibino believes that computers and Internet access in the hands of the disadvantaged and nonprofits will make a real difference in our society.

"I was inspired by many computer assistance activities in the U. S.," says Hibino who visited CompuMentor, Plugged-Inn, and other tech groups in San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the last couple of years. "Before, I wondered if we could ever do the same in Japan. But now, we are managing to do it." Tour de Communication is now one of the most active computer assistance nonprofits in Japan, providing a Japanese model of this activity. (Tour de Communication: 3-3-8 kaiuncho, Nagata-ku, Kobe, Japan 653-0052, Tel:078-739-5650 Fax:078-739-5655 E-Mail:tdc@pure.co.jp, http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~XM2T-IRS/takatori/tdc/)

Computer Classes

Tour de Communication offers 13 computer courses at their office. Each includes 6 once-a-week classes. The courses range from very beginner to fairly advanced such as those for Web page building. Each course has 5 to 8 students. Fees range from 7,000 yen ($60) to 12,000 yen ($110) per course. Discounts apply to foreign residents (50%) and nonprofit staff members (20%). Instructors are professionals who want to share their expertise with community people. Instructors in colleges and engineers at computer companies join the team. Some teach at commercially operated computer classes and come to Tour de Communication for extra work. They are nonimally paid and frequently volunteer to help students during free lab time.

The emphasis of their programs is on immigrants. Working with other Takatori-based nonprofits such as Multilingual Center FACIL, they create Vietnamese, Spanish and other language textbooks. They set up foreign language-based computer systems. In November 2000, they started a "Vietnamese Teach Vietnamese" class. A Peruvian instructor will teach another computer class in Spanish.

Computer Recycling

"In the U. S., they do it. Why don't you do it too? That's what we say when visiting Japanese corporations to solicit donation of used computers," says Hibino. One of their fast expanding projects is computer recycling for nonprofits. "We go to companies as far as in Tokyo. Even Keidanren (Japan's powerful corporate federation) donates their computers for us."

Tour de Communication has quickly become the largest nonprofit computer recycling project in Japan. Officially started January 2000, the project already repaired and distributed more than 130 donated computers (as of October 2000). Their strength is storing space. Based in church-based Takatori Community Center, they have some after-earthquake temporary prefabs that remain empty. "Corporations don't want to be bothered to make seperate donations to each organizations," says Hibino. "They want to get rid of them in one transaction."

Their powerful repair skills are another asset. Donors can just give a bunch of machines to the Tour de Communication and no further worries. Tour de Communication generally charges nominal 10,000 to 30,000 yen ($90-280) for a complete system, though they frequently donate them to poor nonprofits. The 30,000 yen ($280) system is typically a ready-to-go 233Mhrz Pentium system, complete with enough memory, a hard disk drive, a monitor, a modem, a printer, OS and other software installed.

Computer classes and recycling projects are mutually related. Tour de Communication frequently provides repaired computers to groups that are trying to organize computer classes in their own communities. Classes best work when neighborhood based. The role of Tour de Communication is to help organize computer support programs in different communities by providing inexpensive computers and mentoring services.

Computer Mentoring for Nonprofits

Not just gathering students at their lab, Tour de Communication sends mentors to nonprofits to teach their staff at their own sites. They had inspiration for this activity from San Francisco-based CompuMentor (http://www.compumentor.org). The mentors install new computers and make them Internet ready. They train the staff about how to use computers or software. Sometimes they build a sophisticated LAN system for bigger nonprofits or community businesses. These are basically fee-based services. In some cases, especially when Tour de Communication sells repaired computer to community groups, they provide free mentoring services. Tour de Communication, with their 5-6 mentor volunteers, helped more than 40 organizations in the first one year.

Research and Development

Their current R&D focus is on developing multilingual Internet Web sites. Providing computer access to diverse foreign residents creates a unique challenge. How can you get information online in dozens of languages? Especially in many Asian languages that use unique letters and marks? Beside assisting residents to use non-Japanese, non-English OS/software and multilingual Internet capabilities, Tour de Communication explores ways to create mulitilingual Web sites with available resources. See some examples at http://www.bekkoame.ne.jp/ro/asiantown/tozainanboku/tozainanboku-top-page.htm

The multilingual expertise in technology can be applied internationally. They built a 6 languages information Web site in Taiwan, for survivors of the M7.6 Mid-Taiwan Earthquake in September 1999. The Web site uses text and graphic formats to inform the immigrant communities in Taiwan about relief services provided locally. Tour de Communication is working to add audio and video capabilities to the site. See http://homepage2.nifty.com/facil/taiwan/taiwan.html. Interestingly enough, the Internet assistance can be provided from anywere. If you have multilingual resources and capabilities, you can provide necessary help and information to disaster areas from anwhere around the world, crisscrossing national boundaries.

Working with RealNetworks, Tour de Communication plays a part in developing WebActive Japan site. As you see at http://www.webactive.com, the WebActive U. S. site provides webcasting for Pacifica's Democracy Now!, Pacifica Network News, Nation magazine's RadioNation, Working Assets' WAB radio and other progressive audio contents.

Glide Memorial Church of Kobe

Tour de Communication is based in Takatori Community Center, which was created by Takatori Catholic Church after the Kobe Earthquake. On that day of January 17, 1995, the Takatori Church was burnt down by one of many deadly fires caused by the quake. Without water or fire engines, the community people had to just watch the church consumed by fire. From the next day on, however, the church site became the hub of relief activities in Nagata, the most severely damaged area of Kobe (See the detail at http://www.igc.org/ohdakefoundation/npo/kobe.htm).

Takatori Community Center now houses 9 community groups beside Takatori Catholic Church itself. They include FM-YY (multilingual community FM station), Kobe Foreigners' Friendship Center (supporting
Foreign residence), Kansai Office of Vietnamese Resident Council of Japan, Multilingual Center FACIL (translation service community business), World Kids Community (children's advocacy group), Kobe Asia Town Promotion Council (community development group with a multicultural perspective), Asia Women's Empowerment Project, Leaf Green (elderly care group), and Tour de Communication.

Activists in Takatori Community Center several times visited Glide Memorial Church of San Francisco, which provides comprehensive human services in Tenderloin, one of the city's most disadvantaged communities. Influenced by this proggressive model, the people at Takatori Center now call themselves "Glide Memorial Church of Kobe."