Every yen counts.

In 2015, The Japan Times Readers’ Fund received ¥730,012, which was distributed among four charity groups.

Donations offered by readers of The Japan Times last year have been used to help asylum seekers start a new life in Japan, to support Afghan female literacy, to offer basic education to children in the Philippines, and to preserve Laotian forests.

The Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, used its ¥146,003 donation to help seven people from five countries who came to Japan seeking asylum.

In one case, JAR provided ¥20,000 to temporarily help cover the living expenses of a family from a South Asian country who fled to escape persecution. JAR withheld their identity for fear of endangering their lives.

Because asylum seekers are not allowed to work immediately after arriving in Japan, they have no means of supporting themselves for two to three months until the state grants them a special kind of aid, said JAR official Shiho Tanaka.

But many such people become homeless before they receive financial aid from the state, she said.

“The number of people who seek help at support groups like JAR is increasing, because public aid isn’t provided when they need it most,” she said.

Unlike many Western countries, Japan is notorious for its reluctance to accept refugees. In 2015, only 27 out of 7,586 applicants were accepted.

But there are also positive signs of change, said Tanaka, referring to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement in May that Tokyo is willing to accept 150 young Syrians as exchange students over the next five years.

Even though they are not officially accepted as refugees, the important thing is “to accept asylum seekers in any form,” Tanaka said.

“Looking at the reality, as negative sentiment against outsiders spreads around the globe, it has become increasingly difficult for an asylum seeker to gain protection as a refugee,” she said. “If accepting them as exchange students is an effective way to gain public acceptance, then that’s one realistic option.”

For this and other reasons, JAR this year decided to focus more on helping asylum seekers adapt to their new life in Japan by offering lessons on the Japanese language as well as the nation’s unique business culture.

“Japan needs to accept refugees more openly and build a system to fund communities. Otherwise, efforts to support them won’t be sustainable if the nation relies solely on people’s goodwill,” she said.

But beneficiaries of The Japan Times Readers’ Fund are not limited to those in Japan.

Donations also went to Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCO), which has worked to empower women in the provinces of Herat and Ghor in western Afghanistan, where education for young females had long been denied under the Taliban regime, which was ousted in 2001.

“Some men in Arabic countries are still against giving proper education to women, especially in countries like Afghanistan, whose people abide by traditional Islamic teachings,” said Miki Fukushima, a NICCO spokeswoman.

“Even today, 1 in 5 Afghan women who live in urban areas don’t have basic literacy. … We believe overcoming the situation would boost the country’s rebuilding,” she said.

Taking part in a reconstruction project led by the nonprofit body Japan Platform, NICCO has continued to offer literacy and vocational training to Afghan women since 2011.

This year, the Kyoto-based nonprofit used its ¥146,003 donation to purchase textbooks and stationary used in classrooms.

Thanks to ongoing support by NICCO and other organizations, the percentage of women in Herat province who received basic education increased to 61 percent in 2012 — a major improvement from the nationwide figure of 3 percent in 2001. In Gohr province, the rate surged to 32.1 percent.

After Japan Platform’s five-year project ended in February, NICCO entrusted school operations to the initiatives of local groups with a real stake in reconstructing their country, Fukushima said.

Despite these signs of improvement, the group fears the struggles the Afghan people endure will fade from international attention.

“Local people often speak of their concern of being forgotten by the international community, as all eyes are now on Syria,” Fukushima said. “I hope people in Japan will continue to care about the situation of Afghanistan.”

Education is also key for children in the Philippines.

The Philippine-based Educational Research and Development Assistance Foundation Inc. (ERDA), another recipient of the readers’ fund, used its ¥146,000 donation to offer access to basic education to 25 elementary school-level children in Manila.

ERDA prioritizes elementary level education in Manila “because (the children) are at risk of dropping out and not enrolling in school, because of various reasons, particularly poverty,” the foundation’s executive director, Dolora Cardeno, said.

The lack of educational opportunities for children has caused cycles of poverty lasting generations in the Philippines, where 13.1 percent of the population was living on less than $1.90 a day in 2012, according to the World Bank.

Many children born to poor families work on the streets without attending school, making it hard for them to land decent jobs when they become adults.

Since its founding in 1974, ERDA has worked to offer basic education to poor children. This year, the nonprofit offered educational opportunities to children in Manila’s Paco and Pandacan areas through home and school visits, as well as via counseling services.

“Assistance provided by Japan Times Readers’ Fund Committee goes to educational assistance, like school supplies, bags, uniform and a small (amount) for miscellaneous,” Cardeno said.

“As an initial effect, children assisted by Japan Times Readers Fund Committee were happy and inspired to continue their education,” she added.

The Japan Times Readers’ Fund has also been used to protect the traditional culture of people in a less-developed Asian country.

Tokyo-based Japan International Volunteer Center (JVC) used its ¥146,003 donation for its forest preservation project in Laos, where about 80 percent of the people are farmers and forage for food in forests.

“(The forest is) like a supermarket,” said Shigeru Kimura, a JVC official who is in charge of the group’s volunteer program in Laos.

“From foods to medical herbs to firewood. … When they need something, Laotians go into a forest like we go to a supermarket to buy things,” he said, adding that forests are an essential source of their drinking water.

The forests, however, have been disappearing over the years due to increased slash-and-burn farming to expand their rice fields and land exploitation by foreign firms for industrial plantations, putting the lives of poor Laotians in jeopardy, according to JVC.

The devastation of forests, which contain water throughout the year, could cause shortages in times of drought, Kimura said, adding that water scarcity would also damage farm production.

To secure the natural resources needed by Laotians, JVC has worked with villagers to create a land usage map to distinguish forests that must be preserved and those that can be put to use for resources or industry.

The group has also taught villagers about the legal concept of forest ownership so they can claim property rights over their lands in the event that foreign firms try to seize such tracts.

“We believe that preserving forests is the key for Laos to build a sustainable society for years ahead,” Kimura said.

Meanwhile, the ¥146,003 donation that was slated to go to the nonprofit group AMATAK, a regular recipient of the fund that has supported children in Cambodia, will be carried over to the charity drive that is now ongoing, as the group disbanded in June.

This year’s charity campaign runs through Dec. 31. Donations can be made via a bank transfer to the following account: Mizuho Bank, Shimbashi branch, “futsu koza” 1393499 (account name: The Japan Times Dokusha no Nanmin Enjo Kikin). For more details, contact (03) 3453-5312.

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