It took Malia Mullen about two weeks after she arrived in Japan to begin volunteering.
“It all started with a wiener dog,” said Mullen, an American teaching at a university in Tokyo. “I saw this cute little dachshund and started talking to the owner. He mentioned he and his friend had just started a non-profit, and I said I’d be happy to help.”
Mullen put her background of non-profit strategy experience to work for the Equal Marriage Alliance, an organization that strives for the social and legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Japan. She started out planning events, and as time went on, helped with the overall development of the organization.
“I just offered to help and that led to more,” said Mullen. “It’s important to me to give back and participate. So many nonprofits couldn’t function if they didn’t have volunteers.”
Though Japan traditionally had a community culture and practice of helping others, as people migrated to urban areas a breakdown in these structures occurred. People relied more heavily on the government for help, and in the 1980s this resulted in the establishment of volunteer centers in every city.
The Kobe earthquake in 1995, though, gave the concept an even bigger push. Heavy damage from the 7.2 magnitude quake left government offices as paralyzed as their citizens, and it became clear to people that they could help themselves just as well as by helping others.
While volunteering still isn’t as large a phenomenon in Japan as it is in the West, Akiko Kawamura, Chief Program Coordinator for the Tokyo Voluntary Action Center (TVAC), says it is steadily growing.
“Roughly sixty to seventy percent of people are interested, but because they don’t know where they can volunteer or they don’t have enough time or feel shy, they don’t,” said Kawamura. Her organization works to connect volunteers with nonprofit organizations that need their skills and helps coordinate efforts of local volunteer centers.
As of 2011—the most recent year that data were available—there were a total of 8,678,796 volunteers in Japan working on everything from environmental protection to assisting with the elderly and handicapped. Youth programs, disaster recovery, and sports programs are also popular.
Foreign and Japanese corporations alike are also a big part of the volunteer scene in Japan. “Corporate volunteering really became a phenomenon in 2001 when some American firms arrived. Those companies had volunteering as part of their culture, so for them it was natural to seek out opportunities,” said Kawamura.
Japanese companies soon followed suit, but put their own twist on the idea. They offer seminars and trainings to prepare new employees for volunteering. They also created family events on the weekends for their employees. One company sends teams of five volunteers to nonprofits during their first year. “The companies like it because the volunteers learn about corporate citizenship, how to communicate with diverse people, and gain leadership and teamwork skills,” said Kawamura.
Kawamura also points out that volunteers themselves are becoming more diverse. “It used to be that housewives and university students volunteered a lot, but now they are working,” she said. “We noticed during our summer campaign last year that there were more foreigners. Our older people are interested, too, and they’re a great resource for us.”
Kawamura also noticed an increase in people in their 30’s being interested in volunteering. “It used to be that you worked for a company forever, but that’s not true any more,” she said. “Young people are looking for a way to expand their skills, network, and find satisfaction in their work,” she added.
Mullen wholeheartedly agrees. “Volunteering gave me a chance to do things that I would never have done or even tried before,” she said. “There’s a lot of my life that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t volunteered.”
Hands on Tokyo: The Tokyo branch of an international organization that serves as a clearinghouse of information about various volunteer opportunities. www.handsontokyo.org/en
Tokyo Voluntary Action Center (TVAC): Tokyo-based organization that connects volunteers with nonprofit organizations and local volunteer centers. www.tvac.or.jp/page/english