All in a (24-hour) day’s work

From life-and-death pleas to simple requests for directions, Japan Helpline's founder tells how the calls never stop coming in

by Rob Gilhooly

I’ve barely sat down with Ken Joseph Jr. and taken a sip of my coffee when his cellphone rings.

“I think I have AIDS,” the male caller says.

“What makes you think that?” Joseph asks.

“Because I have a sore throat and my glands are swollen.”

“Listen,” Joseph assures the panic-stricken caller, “just because you have a sore throat and your glands are swollen doesn’t mean you have AIDS. There are no symptoms specific to AIDS. You probably just have a sore throat and your glands are swollen.”

“Well, to tell you the truth I was with a girl the other night and . . . “

“Was she HIV-positive?”

“I don’t know.”

“So, why do you think you have AIDS?”

“Because, like I said, I have a sore throat and my glands . . . “

“OK, OK. The only thing you can do is get a test. You should wait three months before getting one, and you can do it at any hoken-jo, which is a public health clinic. There is one in every neighborhood and the cost for the test is 2,000 yen. Make sure you don’t give your name and pay in cash . . . ” The call lasts about 15 minutes, but it’s obvious that this is a process that Joseph, founder and director of The Japan Helpline, has gone through many times. “Every day we have to deal with kids,” Joseph says with a wry smile. “Kids lost in an adult’s body.” The phone rings again.

“I was on the subway and I seem to have lost my wallet. Can you find it for me?”

The Japan Helpline, one of just a few volunteer-run hotline services for Japan’s foreign community, is celebrating its 14th year in operation this year. The development of the hotline, which now offers help in 18 languages, was prompted by the death in 1987 of a foreign student who starved to death in Tanashi, western Tokyo. His visa had expired and he feared being arrested, Joseph explained. “He didn’t know where to seek advice, so there was obviously a need for such a service.”

Joseph, who was born and raised in Japan, first set up a similar organization in the United States almost 20 years earlier. In 1975 he and three friends attending the same Los Angeles college decided to set up a hotline service for Japanese traveling and living in the city — a service that continues to this day.

“Then, one day we got a call from Chicago and, of course, it was too far for us to go and help. So we called around and found a student from Tokyo who was studying in Chicago and he helped out,” Joseph says.

Subsequent inquiries from Japanese in other non-U.S. cities encouraged them to create a database of Japanese-speaking volunteers around the globe to help in emergency situations. Today, the database lists around 50,000 people, about half in Japan, and half in 120 other countries.

Yet, this does not necessarily alleviate the pressure for the group’s more experienced members.

Joseph apologizes for not “being all there” on this warm June morning. The previous night he had lost sleep fielding several calls. “I don’t think I’ve slept through a whole night in all my adult years,” he says. “We can get up to 100 calls a day . . . and there are always a couple that come through during the night that cannot be taken care of by the regular volunteers.” So why not switch your cellphone off from time to time, I ask, bringing a weary look of disapproval. But I am saved, quite literally, by the bell.

This time, it’s a call from a Tokyo police station. A North American man in his 20s found sleeping in a Tokyo park and taken in for questioning has assaulted a Japanese police officer. He doesn’t speak Japanese and the officers speak little English.

Joseph pushes aside his untouched cup of tea and sets off for the police station. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, many of the police stations know us,” he says, adding that as JH is the only service of its type in Japan that operates 24-hours, it is listed in the telephone directory in the same section as the police and fire departments.

Just before I arrived, Joseph had received a call from a couple wanting to know why there were two police officers knocking at their front door. The officers, who spoke no English, requested that the couple call JH, where a volunteer acted as interpreter and helped clear up the situation.

There had been a robbery in the area and the officers were asking everyone in the neighborhood if they knew anything about it.

“Some calls can seem so trivial,” Joseph says, “but for the caller they can be a major ordeal.”

There are calls, however, that undeniably fall into the nonemergency bracket (one caller had recently asked a volunteer to track down a video that her local video store didn’t stock), and it is for these people that JH recently upgraded its Web site.

“We aim to move nonemergency calls to the Internet as we have a team of 20 volunteers to deal with e-mail inquiries,” he says. “By opening our Web page and clicking on the ‘help’ icon, help is on the way for anything, anytime, wherever you are,” he adds, emphasizing that JH can be reached from almost anywhere in the world. In Japan, there is also a team of around 2,000 “best volunteers” who are ready to assist foreign residents on site if needed, he says. Joseph admits it is not always easy to stay enthusiastic.

“If there is one part of this job that sticks in the throat, it’s the fact that after so many years of helping the foreign community here, we still remain supported almost exclusively by Japanese on an individual basis.”

While that support largely comprises “gifts,” such as computers and emergency supplies for the relief teams JH has sent to dozens of disasters worldwide, Joseph says it is always grateful for any donations, no matter how small.