Help is on the way

It took a disaster to highlight the need, but now volunteering is catching on fast in Japan


At the mega-corporation Fuji Xerox Co., Ltd. there is a standing offer to all employees: the option of taking three months to two years of unpaid leave for “social welfare” volunteer activities.

Although only 35 employees have taken the opportunity since the policy was introduced in 1990, this shouldn’t detract from its symbolic importance, especially in a country that provides only limited tax breaks for corporate donations to volunteer groups.

“We would like to support employees who have a strong will to help others,” says Fuji Xerox spokesman Kenji Hamai. “Although it may lead to a better corporate image, that is not our prime purpose. We just hope they will broaden their horizons and put their experiences to good use when they come back to the company.”

At present, around 20 percent of companies in Japan — including other corporate giants such as Sony and NTT — offer similar volunteer breaks. However, the take-up rate in most companies is still very low.

What makes the overall picture of volunteering in Japan rosier are the individuals who take the initiative to spend their “leisure” time helping out in numerous ways outside the traditional group and family circles.

One of the growing numbers of volunteers is 35-year-old Yuko Tanaka, an official with the United Nations in Tokyo, who says that for several years she “had a vague sense of crisis about the deteriorating environment, but did not know what to do.”

However, at a seminar on the environment sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, she met someone who wanted to establish a nonprofit organization to increase public awareness of ecology through staging various events. Now, she contributes stories to the NPO’s newsletter and updates its Web site. She is also involved through her ward office in Setagaya Ward in planning lectures on various issues for local residents.

For Tanaka, the rewards of volunteering go beyond the work itself. “I could seldom have a connection with the community unless I have kids,” she explains. “That’s certainly part of the reason I got involved in these projects.”

Tanaka’s contribution is far from an isolated case. A 1996 survey by the Prime Minister’s Office found that 25.3 percent of the population had worked as volunteers in the previous year. Though that proportion may pale against volunteer leaders such as the United States (55.5 percent) and Britain (48 percent), and there may be differences in the definition of “volunteering,” it is still notable compared with France (23.4 percent) and Holland (24 percent).

It is telling that the word in Japanese for “volunteer” is a katakana loanword. Until perhaps the early 1980s, the concept of helping total strangers was seen as either unusual or saintly.

Tea-party treats

However, for 65-year-old Masaaki Suzuki, a former salaryman living in Yokohama, the concept came naturally. He keeps himself busy almost every day doing several volunteer activities — and insists he enjoys them all.

As an amateur magician, Suzuki began by giving occasional performances at old people’s homes and elementary schools after he retired five years ago. Like Tanaka, he says his motivation was also “to have more opportunities to get to know the people in the community.”

Gradually, he conjured up other volunteer roles, including delivering meals to old people and driving them to hospital if they are sick, making treats for tea parties at a senior citizens’ day-care center and taking care of small children at a community center’s day nursery.

“I like to mingle with people,” Suzuki says. “And because I enjoy all these volunteer activities, I am much more cheerful and outgoing than when I was a salaryman.”

Like Suzuki, more and more of the 7.12 million people registered last year with the National Council of Social Welfare as volunteers — up from a measly 1.6 million in 1980 — regard what they’re doing as an enjoyable social activity, rather than a societal obligation.

Such a change has been a long time coming, and it was often assumed that volunteering would never take root in a non-Christian country such as Japan.

So what changed the mentality of Japanese people, if indeed it has changed?

“There are not so many Christians here, but I have never thought Japanese people are lacking in a volunteer spirit,” says Ken Joseph Jr., the founder of Japan Helpline volunteer group, who is also a researcher of Christian culture in Japan.

“On the contrary,” he says, “volunteerism has been in existence throughout the country since ancient times; it’s just that people are not conscious of it because they are helping each other in the community so naturally.”

Pointing out the traditional mutual-help systems, called yui or ko, that help neighbors with farm-work or family events such as funerals and weddings, Joseph insists, “Volunteerism is nothing new to Japan.”

These community relationships, however, have been weakened by modern society, according to Tsutomu Hotta, president of the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation which promotes volunteer groups offering at-home care for the elderly. Hotta points the finger at the period of rapid economic growth as people became salaried workers spending inordinate amounts of time commuting and at work.

Now, though, people are trying to get back to close community life again, says Hotta, a former prosecutor in the Lockheed corruption case of 1976 who set up the foundation after leaving legal practice in 1991.

“Eventually, Japanese people realized that even though they’d got almost everything they needed, purely materialistic fulfillment could not make them happy,” Hotta says. “So now they are seeking spiritual satisfaction.”

This certainly applies to Fuji Xerox employee Satoshi Maruta, who took a year off work in 1996 to devote himself to volunteer activities. At the time he was nearing the age of 50 and everyday life had become repetitious. “I just went back and forth between home and the company. I found that nothing touched my heart. All I was interested in was money, promotion and fame in the company.”

His outlook changed dramatically after spending his allocated year working with mentally and physically disabled people. “It was such a precious experience,” Maruta says. “I got back something I had lost through those activities and communication with the people in the community. I was touched by every little thing every day.”

Now, even though he’s back at his job in Kawasaki, he still continues his volunteering after work and on weekends. “I’m so grateful that the company let me take such a long time off,” he says.

Shifting public mood

Maruta’s desire to reconnect with a larger community exemplifies a general trend that began to develop around 1990, just as the economic bubble was about to burst. But it was the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, in which 6,400 people died in the Kobe area, that shook people into realizing the importance of volunteering, Hotta says. Around 1.3 million people rushed to the stricken areas from all around the country to help the survivors.

On a wider front, according to a poll by the Economic Planning Agency last year, some 50 percent of respondents said that that disaster alone made them interested in volunteer activities — and 23 percent said that afterward they actually began doing something for the community.

In 1998, Nagatacho responded to the shifting public mood by passing a law that allowed officially recognized NPOs to take on corporate status. As a result, NPOs were able to open bank accounts to facilitate the process of money donations. Many observers believe the next logical step will be meaningful tax breaks for corporate donations to NPOs and volunteer groups — a move long urged by the corporate sector.

Another obstacle to the future development of the voluntary sector in Japan may be the pitifully low interest in volunteering among those in their teens and 20s. Although 42 percent of all registered volunteers are housewives, and 16 percent are retirees, official statistics show only 13.4 percent of 15 to 24 year-olds did any form of volunteering last year. This compares with 38.4 percent in the United States, 43 percent in Britain and 23.6 percent in France.

Toshio Matsuoka, a economics professor at Kanagawa University, believes a bill now going through the Diet to put “social activities” on the curriculum of elementary, junior high and high schools is a step in the right direction.

“Some people say that students should not be forced to do volunteer activities at school, but I think it is a good move,” Matsuoka said. “However, we should avoid calling it ‘volunteer activity’ or something offputting like that; instead, it should be called a ‘social workshop.’ “

Meanwhile, despite a revision of the law to slightly increase tax breaks for corporate and individual donations to NPOs from October, it will remain a paltry incentive compared to other advanced nations. In fact Tetsuya Watanabe, managing director of the Support Center for NPO Program Development, fears it will make hardly any difference because, in addition to the miserly tax benefit for donors, the conditions set for recipient groups remain unreasonably strict.

“There are 4,200 NPOs in Japan, but I would guess that fewer than 10 can meet all the conditions,” says Watanabe. “So if that was sorted out and tax breaks were improved, companies would be far more encouraged to donate money to volunteer groups and NPOs.”