Even before global observance of the International Year of Volunteers begins in January, Japanese are deeply involved in a search for the spirit of international volunteerism. Some insist that it is based on the wisdom of Oriental thought.

But, “why is it Oriental?” asks one young man. “Don’t you remember that it was President John F. Kennedy who thought up the idea of a youth organization of volunteers for development and founded the Peace Corps in 1961? I cannot quite understand why you say it’s Asian or Oriental.”

Britain, France, Canada — and Japan, too — followed in the footsteps of the United States and established similar organizations, assigning many dedicated young volunteers to developing countries all over the world. Then, in 1970, the United Nations also launched its United Nations Volunteers organization, now headquartered in Bonn, Germany.

“That’s right,” concurs a speaker, while young aspirants listen. “Yet,” he continues, “you should know that some people still believe the essence of such volunteerism originates in East Asia.” Many international-development specialists nowadays agree, he says, that the main emphasis of their work in recent decades has been on human rather than social or economic development.

“None of them can succeed today as long as they merely stick to strengthening a nation’s GNP or building up its infrastructure,” he says. Human development is the process of enlarging people’s choices — the choices that are created by expanding human capacities and functions. These include the capacity to lead a long and healthy life, to have knowledge and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living.

Modern endeavors “must begin with educating people for higher human qualities,” emphasizes the old man. “Better educated men and women alone can better serve society.” In olden times, he adds, “many Japanese already knew about it,” having learned from centuries-old Chinese literature. Then he recites a short passage from one such classic:

If you plan a year ahead, sow seeds of grain; If you plan a decade ahead, plant young saplings; If you plan a lifetime, educate humanity.

If you’re hungry, you just eat the grain. If you need something to provide you with shelter, grow trees and cut them up for building materials. But if you want to live really meaningful lives, you have to educate yourselves. Lack of education undermines human capacities and threatens the future of humanity as a whole.

This lecture took place near Kobe recently. The young audience was told that volunteerism was by no means a purely Western concept. Not many understood at first that the concept is, at least in part, of Asian — and particularly Japanese — origin.

Almost 70 years ago, in 1931 — 40 years before Kennedy founded the Peace Corps — a Japanese farmer-poet-educator named Kenji Miyazawa, who died relatively young at the age of 38 two years later, scribbled a brief note in poetic form about the volunteer spirit of service and partnership. However, young Japanese are no longer aware of his writings or teachings.

If, in the east, there’s a child getting sick, Go and take care of him well; If, in the west, there’s a mother exhausted, Carry her bundle of rice harvest; If, in the south, there’s someone dying, Tell him nothing he has to be afraid of; If, in the north, there’s a fight and a lawsuit filed, Tell them to stop, as it is unproductive.

Miyazawa refers to the importance of professional expertise in the fields of social welfare, farming, medicine and legal assistance, as is required today for agents of international development. A volunteer must be physically tough, uninterested in wealth and capable of staying calm in emergencies. “I would rather be labeled a dummy and treated as a nobody,” Miyazawa goes on to write elsewhere.

Volunteers should be highly qualified and experienced professionals if they are to be involved in international technical cooperation. All expatriates work closely together, at the grassroots level, along with the people of their countries of assignment. They settle for a mere subsistence allowance, barely enough to make a modest living. More important, they must be competent in their specific areas of work — agriculture, fishing, medicine, industry, humanitarian relief, local governance and peace building. Whoever wants to succeed as an international volunteer in helping fellow humans in the developing world must excel, first of all, as a professional in a certain field. Neither should he expect as much in return as he has to offer. This is precisely the spirit bequeathed by Miyazawa to the Japanese people, in particular the young.

A century ago, when he was still young, Miyazawa’s hometown was hit by a record famine. As he grew up, the young Kenji saw many a village girl being sold to save her family from further impoverishment and the Salvation Army drumming up support for antiprostitution campaigns in an effort to correct what Japan was at the time. Today, on the threshold of the 21st century, the whole world still confronts similar cruel realities.

The contemporary developing world, with a population of 4.8 billion people, sees each year one in every three babies born unregistered, one in six remain illiterate, millions of under-age girls from poor families forced into prostitution, and some 13 million children lost before their fifth birthdays to the perils of hunger, poverty and curable disease, at a rate of 25 premature deaths a minute.

Who can imagine a jumbo jet carrying 500 children taking off every 20 minutes, only to crash and kill them all? And who could believe that we live in a world of civilization, affluence and abundance while this tragedy continues day in and day out, 365 days a year? Yet this is what is happening — quietly and without drama — to virtually no publicity.

There is no shortage of challenging work for volunteers.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.