Living in the world’s second largest economy, it’s often tempting to forget that there are people and organizations in Japan in dire need of help.
Complex regulations and red tape that restrict day-to-day operations, meager government funding, and threadbare resources often leave many groups that help others in need of help themselves.
Most nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations are small and staffed by just a few volunteers; the average number of full-time staff for Japan’s around 90,000 NPOs and NGOs is 1.3 people.
Many groups are looking for volunteers with specific skills, while others require little more than a pair of hands and a bit of common sense.
Below are just a few of the groups that could use your time and help.
There may be 50,000 homeless in Tokyo, according to Executive Director Charles McJilton of Second Harvest food bank, but there are about 450,000 people every day who do not have enough food to eat.
The group collects food that would normally be discarded by importers in the city, divides it up and distributes it to shelters and homes.
Every week, volunteers visit Ueno and Sakurabashi parks to hand over hundreds of hot meals to their residents.
Twice a month nonperishable goods like tinned food, rice and miso are distributed.
Second Harvest needs drivers for their delivery vehicles and people to pass out food as well as those who can contact companies that donate the food.
The drivers must have Japanese licenses, otherwise, McJilton says, they will show you what to do. The amount of time you put in is up to you.
For more information and to volunteer, go to www.itadakemasu.org
Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK)
If you are interested in animal welfare in Japan, you can help take care of animals in Osaka.
There are very few organizations in Japan that look after abandoned and abused animals, but Animal Refuge Kansai is one of them.
ARK operates a hotline that offers advice and where people can report a situation in which an animal needs help. ARK also has a shelter that currently houses 300 dogs, 100 cats, several rabbits, chickens, and even a silver fox and a pig.
The shelter is looking for people to help take care of the animals by taking them for walks and cleaning their cages.
Anyone with any medical knowledge is particularly needed to work in the clinic.
The organization has recently started an outreach project in Tokyo.
You can offer your help by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
While Oxfam is relatively well known in Western countries for its emergency relief aid and publicity campaigns on such issues as poverty, arms control and fair trade, the public does not know much about its work here.
Oxfam Japan opened its doors in 2003 in both Tokyo and Osaka, and is still in the building stage.
“I was surprised at how small Oxfam was here,” says English volunteer coordinator Andrea Hayes.
This means there are lots of opportunities to volunteer in a wide range of areas.
Hayes says the group is looking for self-starters who can organize fundraising and educational events or set up local groups.
Other jobs are preparing leaflets for mailing, dropping off collection tins, and helping with the Web site and the online forum.
Oxfam is also seeking people who can translate and is looking for Japanese speakers to get involved in organizing the Trailwalker fundraising event planned for 2007.
“A lot of our interns and volunteers finish with a new skill in the form of knowledge or hands on skills,” Akiko Mera of the Tokyo office says.
Nonohana no Ie
Nonohana no Ie, or Wildflower House, in Kisarazu City, Chiba Prefecture, is also looking for people.
Founded in 1984 by Misao Hanazaki, Wildflower House is home to about 40 children, from a variety of countries and aged between 2 and 18, who have been orphaned, abandoned or removed from their homes.
The government-supported home, just west of Tokyo, is looking for tutors in all school subjects, including English.
They also have programs where a family or an individual can take a child or group of children on outings or for home-stays — as short as overnight or for one to two weeks. The only requirement is that people like kids.
However, volunteer coordinator Sarah Okawa said volunteers “should have good common sense and a sense of responsibility” as children are vulnerable and expect adults to follow through on their promises.
The home would also like help with cleaning and for special events.
For more information on volunteering at Nonohana, check their Web site at www.hanazaki.jp
Polaris Project Japan
Founded in Washington D.C. in 2002 and another newcomer to Japan, Polaris Project is dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking.
The group particularly needs people who speak Russian, Thai, Korean, Chinese and Spanish along with English or Japanese to help translate flyers for distribution in the different immigrant communities.
Volunteers can also work on their multilingual hotline, where people can call in for information and report instances of trafficking and abuse.
They provide training for the hotline and counseling work.
“Our organization is pretty new in Japan and volunteers can do just more than just folding pamphlets,” said a spokeswoman from Polaris.
“They have many opportunities to get involved in the program.”
On the other hand, saving the world is not always glamorous work.
“It’s not all going to be exciting.
“There’s lots of desk work, lots of translating, proofreading and research,” she says. “But (volunteers) can find something interesting” in the work.
The group is also looking for people to volunteer in their intern program, which is a full-time position in the office.
Polaris would like applicants who speak Japanese, but will consider each application on its individual merits.
To volunteer with Polaris, contact email@example.com
Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
More options and some caveats
* For more volunteering opportunities in Tokyo, check the Foreign Executive Women’s Volunteering Directory at www.fewjapan.com/volunteer/volunteering_directory.html
* In large cities, contact your local volunteer action center. The Tokyo Voluntary Action Center operates a Web site at www.tvac.or.jp/english/index.html and the Osaka Voluntary Action Center can be found at cw1.zaq.ne.jp/osakavol/english/index.html
In smaller communities, try the nearest international or community center.
* Nonprofit groups are typically understaffed and overworked, so they usually can’t offer a lot of training and support. You need to be able to work independently and take initiative.
* Groups depend on volunteers as they would an employee. “If someone calls and says I’ll drive for you and then cancels, some people don’t get fed,” says Charles McJilton.
* Organizations are more interested in having volunteers who make a commitment, however small, and keep it, rather than people who promise a lot and do not deliver.