Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Value to Japan of Fifty Years of Volunteering Abroad
YANAGISAWA Kae / Vice President, Japan International Cooperation Agency

June 7, 2016
The year 1995 is often recalled as the "First Year of Volunteering" in Japan. It was named as such because, when the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake occurred in 1995, more than 1 million people from all corners of Japan spontaneously rushed to the affected areas and assisted people who had hitherto been strangers to them. This significantly extended the notion of volunteerism beyond mutual help, which had been a common form of social support within local communities.

The event was really epoch making in Japanese society. But it should be noted that Japanese people had actually started volunteering 30 years before the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake outside Japan - in developing countries - through the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) program. In its inception, the program was open to youths only, but then expanded to include seniors under 69 as well as volunteers who work for Nikkei communities in the Americas. To date, more than 49,000 people have served in these types of volunteering, including 2,500 currently working in some 80 countries around the world.

Among these different types, the mainstay is the original youth volunteer program, comprising the majority of volunteers. The program started in 1965 with three objectives: contributing to the development of host countries, promoting friendship between Japan and host countries and equipping Japanese youths with global vision. The US Peace Corps, established in 1961 under the leadership of President Kennedy, was one of the triggers for creating the Japanese version of youth volunteer program.

In present days, young volunteers are serving in a variety of fields, including education, health, sports, agriculture and social welfare. The skills of individual volunteers (such as nursing, volley ball coaching, etc.) are as many as 100. Having a strong desire to help developing countries and applying to the program at his/her own initiative is an essential prerequisite to be a volunteer. At the same time applicants are required to have some skills that can respond to the needs of host countries.

In host countries, volunteers work in schools, hospitals, city halls, local NGOs and other organizations with local bosses and colleagues. The usual challenges they face in the first days of their services are the different customs and practices from those in Japan; such as discipline in workplace, sense of punctuality and quality of facilities and equipment. These challenges make them seriously think about what they can do in the given conditions and how they can motivate their colleagues. In the course of this struggle, volunteers gradually find their own way and learn to make a change with creativity. One example is producing teaching aid with locally available inexpensive materials. Their private life also becomes localized as they get familiar with local cuisine and dress in local costumes.

It would not be realistic to expect these volunteers to perform miracles such as solving all problems in their workplace in two years of assignment. Nevertheless, the very presence of Japanese volunteers brings stimulus and positive impacts on their colleagues, students and local communities. Likewise, the volunteers, for their part, learn a lot from interacting with their counterparts, whom they are designed to help. Through this mutual exchange, people-to-people friendship and understanding are promoted. It is particularly so in Asian countries such as the Philippines and China where the general sentiment towards Japan was not positive after World War II. The local people, through their contacts with the volunteers, came to feel that "these young Japanese are different from the Japanese I had known." The role that the volunteers have played in promoting reconciliation at grass-root level should not go unnoticed.

Through these experiences, many young volunteers came home to Japan grown up and more mature upon finishing their tour. However, the reception accorded to them by the Japanese society upon their return was not necessarily positive in the past. Under the lifetime employment system, preserving harmony in workplace was the priority in many Japanese companies. The returnee volunteers were often regarded as being too independent and not team players. However, there have been drastic changes in the situation in recent years as Japanese businesses strive to cope with globalization. Companies now need employees who have the potential to work in globalized business environments. Thus the demand for ex-volunteers in the job market is becoming high.

In addition to the role in global businesses, the talent of ex-volunteers is attracting attention inside Japan as well. Hundreds of ex-volunteers have worked for the revitalization of rural cities and towns as well as reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake. Ex-volunteers are working in rural communities as helpers from outside to find solutions to a host of problems while overcoming such constraints as the lack of financial resources, population decrease and inconvenient transportation. In doing so, they are seeking ways for motivating and mobilizing the local community members. This is exactly what they learned from the experience of volunteering in developing countries.

In the face of continued low birth rate in Japan, overseas volunteer programs might find it more difficult to recruit young people as they compete in the Japanese job market for scarce young human resources.

However, insofar as the volunteering experiences in developing countries can bring added value to Japanese companies and local communities, volunteering should be regarded as an important step of fostering valuable young talents.

(The writer is Vice President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA))
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

柳沢 香枝 / 国際協力機構理事

2016年 6月 7日










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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Value to Japan of Fifty Years of Volunteering Abroad