KATMANDU – In the physiotherapy ward at Katmandu’s Bir Hospital, a middle-aged woman lay in bed, her back strapped to a big mechanical device. Rukmini Roka, 56, who suffers from chronic backache, struggled to stretch her legs as required by the special therapy machine.
“Sabai thik chha? Bistarai garnuhos (Is everything alright? Please do it slowly),” Yumi Ito, the young lady dressed in white standing by Roka’s bedside, said in fluent Nepali as she helped her stretch her legs back and forth.
Visibly thankful for Ito’s support, Roka responded gently in Nepali, her mother tongue and the lingua franca of this multiethnic but impoverished Himalayan nation encircled by China and India. “That’s better and easier, but it still hurts.”
Back home in Japan, the disasters in Tohoku may have encouraged thousands of Japanese to lend a hand in the huge relief effort in the northeast, with many people volunteering for the first time. But thankfully for Roka and thousands like her, the domestic crisis hasn’t stopped Japanese volunteers from traveling to developing countries such as Nepal to work, as they have been doing since the 1960s.
Ito, 28, from Sapporo, is just one of hundreds of Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCVs) currently serving overseas, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The JOCV program is part of the Japanese government’s grass-roots-level technical cooperation scheme, which has dispatched more than 38,000 Japanese citizens to upward of 80 countries since 1965. In Nepal, a total of 1,109 Japanese volunteers — 449 female and 660 male — had come to Nepal as of June 1 last year.
At any given time, around 100 JOCVs -precisely 90 as of June 28, when the newest batch of 13 volunteers arrived — are serving in Nepal, providing much-needed expertise, motivation and other support in the fields of health, education, agriculture and social welfare around the country. Most of the volunteers come to Nepal on two-year assignments.
After the earthquake and tsunami of 3/11, the thoughts of volunteers like Ito naturally turned to their disaster-affected compatriots back home.
“One of my distant relatives went missing, and another relative died,” she said, her eyes lost somewhere on the horizon. On March 11, she called home to make sure her family and friends were safe and sound. “But communications were bad. I couldn’t get through to my relatives.”
Only later did she find out that not all of her relatives in the Sendai area had survived.
Five months on, the Japanese volunteers in Nepal seem to have come to terms with the disasters, or at least they say they are focused on the enormous challenges they face as volunteers in Nepal rather than on unfolding events back home.
“I know my country needs me in these times of crisis,” said Ito, who first thought about serving the poor in developing countries after seeing scenes of poverty on TV as a child. “But Nepal needs me, too. I have to finish my two-year assignment (which started in June 2010) first. I will go and serve my country after I complete my duties and responsibilities here.”
Most Japanese volunteers in Nepal agreed.
Twenty-eight-year-old Megumi Kurokawa, who experienced the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in her hometown of Kobe, said she was disturbed by the news of the March 11 quake and tsunami. “(After the disasters), I literally ran to make a call to my mother,” she said in fluent Nepali, “but since our region was far from (the epicenter), I was happy to hear that all of our relatives and friends were safe.”
Although she says she would like to help fellow Japanese in need, she feels she is doing valuable work here as a physiotherapist in a community health facility in Bhaktapur, near the Nepalese capital.
“I came to Nepal because I loved the images of Nepal,” she said. “Now I am glad that I am here and serving needy patients, most of whom have disabilities.”
Echoing the sentiments of her fellow Japanese volunteers, she said, “Because I am seeing new things and dealing with new cases every day, I am learning a lot, too.”
Yoshihisha Kogoshi, 40, from Kanagawa, works mostly outdoors on farms. This summer, the agricultural engineer has been helping tomato growers outside Katmandu.
In Indrayani, one of the villages where he has been working, farmers are learning how to grow tomatoes in the off season.
“I am helping them grow organic tomatoes,” he said in slow Nepali, smiling and wiping sweat from his brow with his sleeve one recent afternoon. “I am teaching them how to make organic but . . . not everybody is interested.”
“Overall, the progress is good; it will take time to make every tomato organic here,” he added, laughing.
In light of the Tohoku disasters, he said his country may need him, “but I am here, and committed to my work as a volunteer.”
At 64, Kumiko Kodama, who hails from the Tokyo area, is possibly the most senior of the Japanese volunteers now in Nepal. Working hard to make a difference at Kathmandu International Airport, which handles both domestic and international flights, she seemed satisfied with what she has achieved here so far. Having worked for more than three decades at passenger service departments in several modern Japanese airports, she believes she has plenty of good ideas to offer a developing country such as Nepal.
“I was so shocked to see the domestic terminal didn’t have a proper arrival lobby and had far fewer toilets (than Japanese airports),” the bespectacled lady, wearing traditional Nepali “kurta-suruwal” dress, said, laughing. “The general manager has ‘big ears.’ He listens. That’s why things have improved a bit.”
“They have built new toilets in the domestic section,” but still, she added, “many sign boards are rusting, paint has peeled off the walls . . .” But the biggest problem, she says, is that airport officials “say they don’t have the budgets” to sort these problems out.
With the government aiming to bring in more than 1 million tourists during Nepal Tourism Year 2011, “There’s so much that need to be done to improve passenger services” at Nepal’s biggest airport, she said.
Keiko Shimizu, 24, of Yokohama, is busy cleaning up the mess in the Nepalese capital, which, despite being a beautiful city rich in history and culture, also has the dubious distinction of being among the world’s filthiest and most polluted.
Back home, she said, her brother is working as a volunteer in Tohoku. “But here, I am working to make the local environment clean, green and healthy.”
Shimizu is busy working with the youth of Lalitpur, popularly known as Patan, one of the five cities in Katmandu valley, to set positive examples and raise awareness of the need to clean up the town.
On June 5, World Environment Day, “We did a lot of cleaning and awareness-raising activities, such as cleaning the historic ponds, temples and toilets, and doing art exhibitions,” said Shimizu. “Lots of locals worked together. I think things are gradually changing for the better.”
Senior volunteer Tsuyoshi Shoji, 62, from Tokyo, was “very disturbed” when he heard the news of the March 11 disasters. “But the handling of the disasters’ aftermath looks good,” he said, adding that the recent news of progress had calmed him down and allowed him to focus on his work here.
Every day he commutes to Bir Hospital in the heart of the bustling Nepalese capital, where his compatriot Yumi Ito often keeps him company for lunch.
Monk blazed the trail
Ekai Kawaguchi (1866-1945), a Buddhist monk, is the first Japanese known to have visited Nepal, according to records at the Japanese Embassy in Katmandu.
He is believed to have entered Nepal in 1899 via the Indian town of Darjeeling, where he learned the Tibetan language.
His goal was to secretly enter forbidden Tibet-another mecca for Buddhists — from Nepal.
Via Mustang in western Nepal, he eventually succeeded in crossing into Tibet, where he stayed for two years.
After the local authorities in Tibet found out about his presence, he had to escape back into Nepal.
After returning to Japan in 1903, he came back to Nepal again two years later and presented a 100-volume set of the Buddhist “Tripitaka” to the prime minister of Nepal, Chandra Shamsher, who in turn gifted Kawaguchi with a selection of Sanskrit manuscripts.
In 1912, Kawaguchi visited Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha in southern Nepal, on a pilgrimage with professor Junjiro Takakushi, Rev. Ryutai Hasebe and others.
A memento of Kawaguchi’s Himalayan travels exists in the Obakusan Manpukuji temple near Kyoto. Near the gate stand two tall Himalayan cicada trees, saplings of which were brought to Japan from Nepal by Kawaguchi.
During his third visit to Nepal, Kawaguchi suggested that the prime minister of Nepal begin cooperating with Japan in the fields of science and technology, agriculture and socioeconomic development.
His suggestions seem to have worked, as today Nepal-Japan cooperation and friendship lives on. Japan is one of Nepal’s biggest bilateral development assistance partners, and thousands of Nepalis love to work and live in Japan. (S.P.)
Bir Hospital is Nepal’s oldest and largest medical institution, yet it suffers from a lack of adequate medical resources and crumbling infrastructure, say hospital staff. The poor and needy Nepalis who visit Bir every day seeking life-saving treatment and medical care also complain that mismanagement at the hospital is rife.
There, Shoji said he has been encouraging engineers and managers to fix essential medical equipment such as X-ray machines and CT scanners. Sunil Shrestha, who heads the equipment management division, said that with Shoji’s cooperation, the department is now making an inventory of all the available equipment.
“After we got rid of all the useless equipment, more than 95 percent of our equipment is functioning well now — thanks to Shoji-san.”
Crediting “Shoji-san’s ideas,” he said the hospital has started a rat-killing drive. “Rodents were destroying a lot of our equipment, like X-ray machines, so now we are focusing on cleaning, particularly anything edible.
“The Clean Hospital Project has meant that, with no foodstuff around, the hospital is gradually becoming rat-free. It’s looking much better.”
Nepali people, too, have appreciated the cooperation and support offered by the Japanese workers.
“Japanese volunteers who have come here have been great,” said Uddhav Lal Singh, who works in the hospital’s biomedical department. “Most of them speak fluent Nepali. They are easygoing and accommodating in Nepali houses and workplaces. That’s been a great plus. Most of them also look like Nepalis — some (Nepalis) have eyes like Japanese. Every member of staff at the hospital, and the patients, like Japanese volunteers.”
Gyani Shova Manandhar, a resident of Patan who has offered lodgings to several Japanese tourists and volunteers, was equally effusive in her praise of her guests’ language ability and demeanor.
“Over the years I have hosted several Japanese girls at my house. Since most of them spoke Nepali, they were like my daughters or sisters,” she said. “Because they were friendly and nice, we took good care of them.
“I love Japanese people. . . . They are so humble and hardworking. We Nepalis can learn a lot from them. Many Japanese I hosted have returned, but our friendship — friendship for a lifetime — remains.”
Surendra Phuyal is a BBC correspondent based in Katmandu. Send all your comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org