Most Japanese teens have little exposure to issues of worldwide poverty or the volunteerism that seeks to end it.
Unlike in the United States and Europe, where youths are introduced to volunteerism at a fairly young age, children here rarely have the opportunity to do volunteer work at school or in their local communities.
Free The Children Japan is trying to change that. Started in 1999, the group is an offshoot of the nonprofit founded in 1995 in Canada by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger.
Under the direction of adults, the group has recruited youths to do volunteer work to help children, especially in Eastern Africa and India, escape from poverty.
These activities include collecting donations, taking part in campaigns to stop child labor, and giving speeches and workshops at schools and events.
One of the pillars of these activities is the 3-year-old “chocolate project.”
For seven months junior high and high school students plan, design and sell chocolates.
Gathering after school and on weekends, the children design and wrap packages of chocolates provided by Chidoriya, a confectionery company based in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward.
On a freezing afternoon in February, about 10 children gathered to sell chocolates in front of Shibuya’s Tokyo Union Church — calling out, “Chocolates for sale!”
Most of those who stopped by were mothers, young women and the elderly.
“Some people tell us that they’ve come to buy the chocolates after reading or hearing about us in newspapers or on the radio. Once when it was raining, I was touched that some of them even closed their umbrellas to buy the chocolates,” said Mayuko Sako, a representative of the project.
“We want more students to come and buy the chocolates, as we need the students to get more interested in our activities,” she added.
According to the International Labor Organization, 215 million children were forced to drop out of school and work in 2010. India, it is believed, has more child laborers than any other country.
In honor of these children and in the hope that they can all attend school, the chocolates are labeled with the word “shanti,” which means “peace” in Hindi.
Sako, 16, said her interest in volunteer activities was sparked when she took part in a UNICEF fundraising campaign at her elementary school. She found out about Free The Children when her mother translated a book by Kielburger into Japanese, and by chance heard him speak on TV.
“I was shocked that such poverty existed around the world, and that a 12-year-old like Craig stood up to do something about it,” she said.
Sako, who attends a private high school in Tokyo, said that being able to talk about international issues with other youths in the group is all the more inspiring for her.
“It’s volunteer work worth doing, because you get to know and talk to people you normally don’t get to meet at school,” she said. “It would be great if more and more youths sympathize with what we’re doing, and volunteering becomes familiar to them.”
Saki Nishino, in charge of the project’s public relations, said she became interested in international affairs as a high school freshman.
“I was surfing the Internet about these matters and hit information about Free The Children by chance,” she said.
Sako said they have to sell about 5,000 packages of chocolate to pay the ¥1.2 million it costs to build a school in India.
Since last November, they have held several chocolate sales at Christmas time, Valentine’s Day and on other occasions, selling over 2,500 packages. They also sell packages of six chocolates online for ¥400.
“We have to be grateful that we can go to school — it is normal for Indian children not to be able to attend school,” she said.
Sako plans to fly to India during spring break next year on a Free The Children study tour to see with her own eyes the process of building a school in Rajasthan state in northwest India.
“I want to go to India as soon as possible and talk to Indian children in person,” she said.