All-women NPO acknowledges the small kindness

Japan's community-based branch of world network works to protect gentle values

by Angela Jeffs

Bustling with resilience and enthusiasm, Yukiko Yamahashi sets the tone for one of the few Japanese NPOs (nonprofit organizations) that still retains any degree of independence from government control. This means, of course, that it is regarded as troublesome, and a price has been paid.

As Yamahashi — secretary general of the Small Kindness Movement Executive Office in central Tokyo — explains: “We lost a lot of membership as a result of negative press. But our movement is healthy and increasingly active abroad. SKM has its roots in a speech made by Dr. Seiji Kaya, president of Tokyo University in March 1963. “Talking to graduates, he said he wanted them all to bravely practice ‘small kindnesses,’ triggering an avalanche of goodwill that would result in kindness prevailing throughout Japan.”

Kaya had worried that because his country was undergoing rapid postwar development, young people in the ’60s were losing out on ideals and finding a purpose in life. Since their energy had to go somewhere, it poured into the student movement.

After his message was disseminated, concerned citizens took matters into their own hands, and for 42 years have been promoting the construction of a thoughtful and responsible society in which people communicate with consideration and respect.

As Yamahashi explains: “Our motto, has always been, Let’s practice whatever kindness we can offer, so that it will become the habit and backbone of Japanese society.”

She became involved 28 years ago, after graduating from Gakushuin, famed for its elitist connections but to which she gained entry purely by merit. “I applied and got in.”

Mixing with students who talked about horse-riding and summer houses, though, Yamahashi felt strange. She’d never known people like that before.

She considered law as a career, but decided she’d make a bad prosecutor. “The students at Gakushuin were not bad people, but as the only one doing arubaito, part-time work, to help fund my studies, the obvious gap in wealth and opportunity pushed me to side with the underdog.”

SKM had first come to her attention years before, when a classmate in junior high school in Yokohama received a Small Kindness award. “It was nothing newsworthy. She simply found something that someone had lost and turned it in.” A small thing, but more and more people are following the precept, finders keepers. “Why the change? Society has changed.”

Things that members of her generation feared would happen are happening, she says. Children learn from adults, and adults are behaving more and more badly, so what can you expect? At school, everyone is chummy, but students have friends of their own age; what they need from among the staff are mentors.

Yamahashi joined SKM in part because she was attracted by the fact that it’s almost exclusively run by women. (The book-keeper is male, but that’s about it.)

“Why do I like working with women? Because men tear things down, destroy. Women build, create, protect. Since women act predominantly as a barrier to hold back a flood of male-generated negative energy, they are not always so educated and confident. SKM gives them a chance to do what they do best.”

She laughs when asked why she’s never entered the mainstream political arena. “I know myself too well,” she replies. I’m not the Queen Bee type.”

Married, with two children and a grandson, she is looking for someone to train to takeover her job. The trouble is that young women today tend to learn what they can toward furthering what they think of as a proper career, and then quit after a couple of years to move on.

“It’s very frustrating. They don’t seem to realize that a career in an NPO is as important as any other. Often it’s families that don’t perceive them as doing something valid, so they don’t get support.”

At the movement’s peak, SKM had some 400,000 members. Now this is down to 170,000. Saying that change occurred when many villages and small towns amalgamated to make them more efficient, is true. But there were other factors.

Though refusing to bow to government control meant a drive toward extinction, quite the opposite has happened, with the movement being replicated in 17 countries abroad: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Dubai, Holland, India, Italy, Korea, Nigeria, Nepal, New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Scotland and the rest of Igirisu (the U.K.).

So, I exemplify — describing how a neighbor in Scotland walks in sun, rain and snow to bring my 93-year-old-aunt a newspaper every morning — could I nominate Lexie for an SK award?

“Indeed,” says Yamahashi. “Just contact the SKM office in Scotland, and she will be acknowledged with all the other small kindnesses registered.”

In November 1993, the first Spirit of the World Kindness Movement conference was staged in Tokyo. This year sees the Singapore Kindness Movement publishing Always in Season, a Second Harvest of Kindness Stories. (The first compilation appeared in 2000.)

In fast-paced lives, most of the related acts of kindness might scarcely register. But as Aesop is quoted on page 5: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Rabbi Harold Kushner on page 25: “When you are kind to others, it not only changes you – it changes the world.” Also Sai Baba on page 93: “No joy can ever equal the joy of serving others.”

Despite being a nationwide concern, Japan’s SKM is very much community-based. “From this year, we are starting to have volunteer kamishibai taking three stories around schools in every prefecture.”

One of the stories related on painted storyboards may well be one of her favorites, which just happens to be summer-related. “It concerns a little boy with a bad heart. When he got sick by the pool one day, the lifeguard took care of him. One day when the boy went to hospital he bumped into the lifeguard, who turned out to have exactly the same problem.”

With a national executive office, 35 prefectural executive offices and 167 municipal branches, SKM organizes cleanup operations, an essay contest, postcard campaigns, donates wheelchairs and sends volunteers into a wide variety of care facilities.

Its most important activity, however, is in giving Small Kindness Action Awards to individuals who have practiced kind acts. To date, near 5 million award winners have received certificates and badges. With individuals, schools, corporations and communities promoting Small Kindness activities, recommendations are increasing all the time and the movement is gathering pace.

Which is why I’m off to nominate Lexie.