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Staff writer

KOBE — During his time in Silicon Valley, James Higa often saw U.S. businesses give their used personal computers to those in need, including nonprofit organizations and schools, and wondered why the same wasn’t done in Japan.

Higa, president of the Japanese subsidiary of U.S. Internet business RealNetworks, got to talking with his friend Junichi Hibino about the idea and found in him someone who could help make the practice a reality here as well.

It happened that Hibino, a member of the Asia Town Promotion Council, an NPO aimed at creating a multicultural community in Kobe’s Nagata Ward, had been trying to find a way to acquire for his group some of the numerous PCs he saw being dumped.

Under Higa’s guidance, Hibino decided to create a new organization to collect used computers, make necessary repairs and provide them to NPOs and minority groups in need.

Tool de Communication will officially be launched Oct. 17, but it has already begun offering computer classes for local citizens and minorities.

“Classes can promote exchanges between local people and foreign communities here,” Hibino explained.

Nagata Ward, which was particularly badly damaged in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, has many Vietnamese and Korean residents.

As a way to help foreign communities here, Hibino was also involved in starting a multilingual FM radio station. With help from Higa’s company, FM Wai Wai has been on the Internet since January 1997.

Behind such efforts is the belief that computers and the Internet are becoming increasingly important in everyday life as well as at work.

The Internet provides easy access to information and enables anyone to share information with a wide audience — a privilege that was formally only accessible to those with money and power, Higa said.

“At the same time, however, the gap between those who can use computers and the Internet and those who cannot is widening,” he said, stressing the need to provide people with opportunities to learn how to use them.

“People should not consider learning how to use computers as their final goal but as a tool to realize their initial purpose more efficiently,” Higa said.

Tool de Communication has so far collected 20 used PCs, some of which have been repaired and installed with new software. All are from foreign companies and both foreign and Japanese individuals — but not Japanese businesses.

“Through friends, I have asked some major Japanese companies to give us some of their used PCs. But they declined, claiming a variety of reasons,” Hibino said.

For instance some firms said that donating used computers may be against required procedure under the waste disposal law.

In contrast, Higa’s parent firm in Seattle has been highly supportive of his activities to assist NPO efforts in Kobe, even though he is based in Tokyo.

Born in the United States, Higa has spent almost his whole life there and recognizes the clear differences between Japanese and U.S. firms’ attitudes toward philanthropy.

Volunteerism is very much taken for granted in the U.S., he said. And in promoting it, he said, Americans are willing to provide not only their money but expertise.

“Companies as well as individuals seek ways to make use of their expertise — rather than simply giving donations” to contribute to society, Higa said.

Having said that, however, he is not totally pessimistic about Japan’s volunteer spirit. He is counting on the younger generation, who impressed him with their volunteer activities following the 1995 quake, calling them the “hope of Japan.”

“I think there are many people who want to volunteer their expertise,” he said. “I want to make this project the start of such volunteer activities.”

Tool de Communication is asking businesses to donate used PCs and offer their computer experts to teach voluntary classes. For more information, call the group at (078) 739-5650.

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