Hundreds of people, young and old, including some claiming to be homeless, have been making donations to disadvantaged children across the nation for the past few weeks, having apparently discovered the significance of charity with the help of long-forgotten cartoon heroes.
The fad, now dubbed “the Tiger Mask Phenomenon,” also reveals that there are many individuals who want to help others in need, but Japanese society lacks a functioning mechanism to help them make donations.
The phenomenon started on Christmas Day in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, when someone secretly placed 10 boxes containing new school bags in front of a welfare facility for children. The donor was identified only as “Naoto Date,” the hero of the 1960s cartoon series “Tiger Mask,” in a card found with the bags.
Since the incident was reported, copycat donors have delivered cash, stationery, vegetables, diapers and other items to welfare facilities and city offices in all 47 prefectures under the name of Naoto Date or other cartoon and fictional characters.
Kensuke Suzuki, an associate professor of sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University, believes most of the donors are middle-aged people who spent their childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Tiger Mask, Kamen Rider and other heroes mentioned in the donations were popular among children.
“They are the characters of an era when what is right and what is wrong was clear and simple,” Suzuki said.
The chain of imitation reflects the ease people feel in expressing good will under the guise of those heroes.
Suzuki said anonymity and charity make a good combination for the Japanese.
“Japanese would hate it if their names were revealed in making donations, like in donations by billionaires in the United States. The distinct image of the heroes and anonymity create a synergy, and this has encouraged people who wanted to do something helpful for others,” he said.
But the sociologist also believes the phenomenon won’t last long because many of these donors want their acts reported in the media, but as the number of donations increases, individual cases no longer make the news.
Photographer Shinya Fujiwara is critical of the phenomenon, seeing it as being based on a “distorted heroism” mirroring Japan’s political and economic doldrums.
“Those donors probably include people whose ties with their families and friends have been severed, and who have no place to express affection for others,” said Fujiwara, who felt “frigid” when he first heard about the Tiger Mask movement.
It is a kind of “compensatory behavior” for lonely people to satisfy their sense of existence by getting media attention, he said.
He also criticized the donors who delivered leather bags used by elementary school children, following the selection of gifts by the first donor in Maebashi, without thinking whether such items are actually needed by children at welfare facilities.
When he went to the Kobe area to take photos at the time of the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, he saw piles of stationery and clothes that had been sent from across the country but were not needed by the quake victims, and realized that what was truly needed were vegetables.
“It is not healthy to donate school bags after unilaterally deciding that is what is wanted, and not actually thinking about other people,” he said.
The box-shaped leather bag is a special item for Japanese children as it is customary for the family of a child who enters elementary school to prepare a new bag, which usually costs around ¥30,000. Many young children look forward to using it ahead of entering elementary school.
But since the phenomenon has resulted in the delivery of hundreds of school bags at welfare facilities, some of their operators have expressed puzzlement because many children in such facilities aren’t orphans. Instead, they lack proper care or are suspected of delinquency.
“All children in this facility have families,” said Shigeyoshi Suzuki, head of a children’s home in Sendai, after two boxes believed to contain school bags were donated anonymously.
“Precisely because the children are away from their families, it is important for them to receive bags that have been bought by their families,” Suzuki said. “I appreciate the donations, but I cannot open these boxes.”
However, people involved in charity activities have generally given a warm response to the phenomenon.
Yusuke Kumagai, an official of the Tokyo-based Central Community Chest of Japan, which runs the Red Feather Community Chest Movement, said he has been “relieved” by the Tiger Mask phenomenon.
The giving comes at a time when donations to his group dropped to ¥20.1 billion in 2009 from a peak of ¥26.6 billion in 1995.
Kumagai said that because of this drop, he is “worried about a reduction in the desire to help each other.”
Author Keiko Ochiai, who runs a bookstore specializing in children’s books, also gives a thumbs up to the phenomenon.
“People have longed for good news because there is so much dreadful news every day,” she said.
“Everybody has the inner feeling of wanting to please somebody. After hearing that someone donated something somewhere, people felt, ‘Maybe I can do the same,’ and that’s how this movement has spread.”
Even if the anonymous donors include people who just want news coverage, she doesn’t think it is bad.
“As a result (of such donations), somebody became happy and smiled. I think that is wonderful.”
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