With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine following Russia's invasion more than two years ago, Ukrainian evacuees in Japan have had to face up to the reality that returning home is not a realistic option for the foreseeable future, as they prepare to stay in their host country for the long haul.

While evacuees must overcome the high hurdle of obtaining Japanese language proficiency in order to achieve a stable life in Japan, Ukrainian evacuees are making efforts to become more self-reliant with assistance from support groups.

Interpreter Hidefumi Yamaguchi teaches Japanese to Ukrainian evacuees in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in February 2024. (Kyodo)

They are also benefitting from a system set up by the Japanese government last year to grant foreigners fleeing from conflict zones such as Ukraine working visas, permitting long-term resident status.

A Ukrainian evacuee (C) learns Japanese with interpreter Hidefumi Yamaguchi (back) and Kazuma Ono (far R) in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in February 2024. (Kyodo)

In the southwestern city of Beppu in mid-March, Hidefumi Yamaguchi, a Russian language interpreter, gave lessons on Japanese language in a class attended by seven Ukrainian evacuees. The class was sponsored by the local nonprofit organization Beautiful World.

Yamaguchi explained how aspects of Japanese plural grammar compare with Russian, and responded to their questions. Russian is widely spoken in Ukraine, especially in the eastern part of the country and urban areas, and the attendees used the language to ask their questions.

The Oita Prefecture city of Beppu, known for having a large number of hot springs, has some 30 Ukrainian refugees living there. Due to the large number of international students in the city, it readily accepted them.

Providing support to the evacuees living in the area has generally been straightforward because most of them are living in the same residential complex. But living in such close proximity to each other has naturally meant that they have not yet had the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in a Japanese language environment.

Finding that they were unable to keep up with Japanese language lessons held in Japanese, the NPO decided to offer them free classes conducted in Russian.

"They easily understood my lesson," Yamaguchi said. The class was "understandable and interesting," one of the seven participants, Stromina, 47, said with a smile.

Stromina (R), a Ukrainian evacuee learns Japanese with others in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in February 2024. (Kyodo)

Despite the new visa status for long-term residency, however, financial assistance for Ukrainian evacuees from support groups and other sources is limited. Beautiful World places emphasis on language education because proficiency in Japanese holds the key to employment and financial independence.

As of March 20 this year, some 2,100 Ukrainian evacuees were in Japan, according to government data.

A Ukrainian evacuee (front) learns Japanese from the NPO Beautiful World's Kazuma Ono in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, in February 2024. (For editorial use only) (Kyodo)

The Nippon Foundation, a Tokyo-based nonprofit, found in a survey of about 1,000 Ukrainians conducted from November to December last year that while 73 percent wanted to remain in Japan, 53 percent were unemployed. Of the jobless respondents, 57 percent said they were looking for jobs. The language barrier is the biggest reason for the high jobless rate, a foundation official said.

Even those who are employed sense the importance of developing language skills to make a steady living. "I must improve my Japanese to support my family," said Tsviliuk, 40, who works for an after-school childcare program in Beppu.

Kralikauskas, 46, who came from the eastern region of Donetsk and now works as a tatami mat maker, expressed his hope to firmly plant roots in Japan given the circumstances facing his homeland.

"Realistically, I cannot return home because it is effectively occupied by Russia, and I hope to have a home in Japan in the future," he said.

Kazuma Ono, a 37-year-old member of Beautiful World, said he hopes that his group's assistance will eventually help these evacuees to play full-fledged societal roles down the road.

"We hope they will earn enough to pay taxes and contribute to Japan in various other ways, too," said Ono. Based in Beppu, his NPO also has an office in Iki, Nagasaki Prefecture, and has helped Ukrainians come to live in cities in Oita and Nagasaki prefectures.

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