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Japanese men and women of all ages are increasingly spending their spare time engaging in a variety of volunteer work, ranging from restoring traditional “minka” wooden houses in the countryside to recycling secondhand computers.

The number of volunteers has surged since the second half of the 1990s to 6.96 million as of April 1999, according to the Japanese Council of Social Welfare. Its survey in 1996 found homemakers accounted for 42 percent of the total number of volunteers at the time, followed by retirees at 16 percent.

A wide-ranging network of salaried workers, self-employed people and architects is striving to halt the disappearance of the minka — the pinnacle of traditional Japanese dwelling culture now threatened by depopulation of the countryside and the aging of society.

Minka, with their characteristic thatched roofs, plastered walls and “irori” open hearths, have contributed to the distinctive landscape of rural farming and mountain villages.

Kenji Hirao bought an old deserted farmhouse in Nammoku, Gunma Prefecture, for 3.6 million yen three years ago. The house was said to have been built nearly a century ago.

Hirao, 57, is the director of the Japan Minka Reuse and Recycle Association, a nonprofit organization established four years ago with the aim of spreading minka restoration efforts and raising awareness of such preservation across the country.

It now has more than 2,000 volunteers. In addition to seeking volunteers keen on restoring minka in their spare time, it operates a “minka bank” that gathers information from owners looking to sell their minka and publishes it in a magazine for members.

Hirao recalled that when he saw the house in Nammoku, he thought it was too good to be torn down.

“Its exterior and interior were run down, but the central pillar house was sturdy and shining black,” he said.

Hirao, who heads a product-design team in a housing-related firm, refurbished his minka as a villa, preserving the original thatched roof, columns and beams, open hearth, and a section of its earthen floor.

However, he installed insulation in the walls and floor to protect against the cold.

“It’s now just as comfortable as a modern house,” he said.

While serving as a volunteer to survey many old minka still standing in his village, he gives tours of his rejuvenated villa to members of the association to show how traditional houses ought to be preserved.

The number of people asking about the possibility of moving into old houses with a long, useful life is growing, the association’s secretariat said.

Internet information distributor Sanka Network Inc. is helping young people find work as “borabaito,” a Japanese coinage meaning volunteer part-timers.

Kazushi Yamamoto, managing director of the Tokyo-based company, said the network arranges for young people to work in farm households in depopulated areas, “minshuku” inns and private households with physically disabled people needing care.

Such volunteer workers get paid at least the minimum wage stipulated by law in the areas where they work, but they have to pay for their own food and lodging.

University senior Emi Naganuma, 21, of Saitama Prefecture, started visiting the homes of people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities in March to help them clean house and cook.

“It’s better to get paid because then I feel I’m responsible for helping others,” she said.

In December, the group E-elder won official recognition as an NPO for its efforts to collect secondhand personal computers from corporations and donate them to other NPOs and welfare organizations.

It was set up in July 2000 by its president, Yoshitsugu Saotome, and former company employees in their 50s and 60s.

Like Saotome, a 61-year-old retired employee of IBM Japan Ltd., E-elder members are former employees of corporations with extensive knowledge of information technology.

“Personal computers and human beings do not become garbage when they become old,” Saotome said. “We hope to make use of 70 percent to 80 percent of the abilities we acquired while active.”

E-elder plans to donate 1,000 old PCs to cash-strapped NPOs and welfare organizations this year, and has already received requests for 4,000 computers.

IBM Japan has agreed to foot the bill for the recovery of old PCs and the erasure of data, while Microsoft Corp. will provide new software for free.

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