National / Social Issues

Buddhist volunteers reaching out to the homeless of Tokyo

by Takeshi Nishide


On a morning in January, female volunteers went to Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to feed and attend to the needs of the homeless.

The women, who belong to the Japan branch of the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese humanitarian group established in 1966 by Buddhist nun Cheng Yen, distributed meals to the 100 or so homeless people lined up for food and inquired about their health and general welfare.

“They talk about Buddhism, but they are not trying to spread their religion,” a homeless man said of the volunteers.

A global organization with branches in around 50 countries and regions, the Tzu Chi Foundation sends volunteers to disaster areas around the world.

After the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Tzu Chi volunteers engaged in various relief activities in badly affected communities in the Tohoku region.

“We practice religious discipline not by chanting scriptures at home but by taking action,” a member said. Most of the Japanese branch’s members are women who have ties with Taiwan, including naturalized Japanese citizens of Taiwanese origin.

Mako Hayashi, a soup kitchen volunteer, was at first a half-hearted contributor to the foundation’s cause, donating money without joining in any of the charity work. Now that she has joined as a volunteer, Hayashi’s sense of sympathy toward the needy has grown. “Warm feelings well up here,” she said, pointing to her heart.

While her priority is her own job and family, Hayashi devotes what little free time she has to volunteer activities.

Although its activities derive from the spirit of Buddhism, the Tzu Chi Foundation keeps its door open to volunteers of any religious belief. “What’s important is to have feelings of compassion,” Hayashi said.

Akira Kaneko, a professor at Tenri University who is an expert on religious organizations’ charitable activities, said the Tzu Chi Foundation is using the “energy of religious belief” as a driving force of its community service.

Hitosaji no Kai (One Spoonful Association), a charity group led by Buddhist priests from various temples belonging to the Jodo sect in Tokyo, is also reaching out to the homeless.

Volunteers, including housewives and company employees, visit the derelict Sanya district two evenings a month to hand out free food and assess the needs of the homeless. If necessary, they network with other volunteer groups to provide medical care and give advice about ways for people to get back on track.

Gakugen Yoshimizu, a deputy chief priest of Koshoin Temple, oversees day-to-day management of Hitosaji no Kai.

As a child, Yoshimizu was used to seeing homeless people as he grew up in Sanya, known as a day laborer ghetto. After taking part in activities such as building a cemetery and assisting in funeral services for homeless people. Yoshimizu, together with other priests, founded Hitosaji no Kai in 2009.

With inequality and poverty growing as globalization uproots society, the priests wanted to sow the seeds of compassion.

Providing food is only a first step. “Charity is not something that Hitosaji no Kai alone can take on,” Yoshimizu said, calling for wide-ranging cooperation with other volunteer groups.