Photo:Ron Mader on Flickr

Volunteering in Japan

Anyone who was in Japan on that fateful day of March 11th 2011 will, most likely, never forget what happened. As far as human tragedies go this one cut right to the bone. 10,000 people lost or killed, thousands more displaced, an entire energy infrastructure crippled. The effects were widespread and are still being felt today, not just in Japan, but globally.

I recall sitting back helplessly in my apartment in Hong Kong at the time, watching impotently as I saw entire villages being washed away. Indeed for me personally it was something of a turning point in my life. The hurt, pain and anguish I felt that day made me realise just how much of an impression Japan, its people and its culture had made upon my soul during the 4 years I lived there prior to moving to Hong Kong. It was that day that I first made my solemn vow to return to this place, and a little under 2 years later, I finally did.


Photo: Hajime NAKANO on Flickr

However, as with most disasters the level of pain, distress and despair we feel at the time is often superseded by the supreme sense of hope and optimism we draw from seeing the waves of compassion, love and support pouring in from all around the world in the aftermath of such tragic events.

I recall seeing thousands of volunteers flood into the Tohoku region, not just from Japan but from other countries too. It was particularly heartening to see so many Chinese and Korean volunteers, setting aside old wartime hatreds and current political rivalries in the name of helping their fellow men and women.

It got me thinking, I need to do more volunteer work.


Photo: Direct Relief on Flickr

These days Japan is still struggling to meet the needs of the many thousands still forced to live in temporary accommodation across the Tohoku area. However, with rebuilding underway in much of the devastated areas, the need for immediate, on the ground volunteers from abroad is beginning to subside.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of ways you can help out. There are certainly lots of other means by which foreign residents and visitors can give something back to Japanese society.

First a couple of things to consider before volunteering. Most volunteer opportunities in Japan will require to have some capability to communicate in Japanese. The very nature of volunteer work means that organizers want to maximize the benefit to those in need by keeping their own costs low. For most charities, hiring a translator or interpreter is an unnecessary expense.

However if your Japanese isn’t that great please don’t be put off. There are enough international charities operating in Japan, like Amnesty International, Oxfam, Habitat for Humanity amongst others, that you can still find a great deal of information and opportunities to volunteer in English, just be prepared that opportunities will be a far more widespread if you can get your Japanese up to a conversational level.

One great organization that’s always in need of help is Tokyo English Life Line (TELL).

TELL is a free telephone counselling service for English speaking foreigners in Japan who are in crisis. Whether its depression, anxiety, financial misfortune or just that living in Japan has become too much for you, TELL is there to help. The service is completely voluntary, so they are always looking for new volunteers to train as telephone counsellors and you don’t necessarily need to be living in the Tokyo area to help out.

If you’re an English teacher in Japan like me, have you ever considered donating your time and your teaching skills to those less fortunate in Japan.

One particular area where this kind of help can be invaluable is in the many orphanages and children’s care homes across Japan.

Some of my friends made such a visit to an orphanage in Osaka last year and its now become a semi-regular thing. It goes without saying that being an orphan is a tough experience and these poor kids can often feel abandoned by the world. My friends all reported that spending just a few hours with this amazing young people and seeing their faces light up as they got to grips with even the most rudimentary English phrases was enough to melt even the coldest heart. This kind of tremendously rewarding and self-empowering experience is exactly what volunteering is all about.

If you enjoy working with animals or are concerned about animal welfare and you live in the Kansai region, then perhaps you could consider volunteering with Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK).


Photo: billy kerr on Flickr

ARK is an animal refuge center that cares for a variety of displaced animals. While it is hoped that most of the animals can eventually be rehomed, in many cases this isn’t possible due to age, health or in some cases emotional and temperament issues. Nevertheless, these animals have as much right to quality of life as any other and ARK aims to see that they get just that. For animal lovers, there are a variety of ways you can help out. Playing with cats and dogs is perhaps the most common activity for volunteers at ARK. Whether they are young animals in need of training and further developing their “people skills” before being rehomed, or elderly animals in need of a good walk to stay fit, there’s no shortage of furry friends in need of a helping hand. Many of the animals may not be able to clean themselves properly for a variety of reasons, so you can expect to do a fair bit of grooming too.

Of course cleaning out the kennels to make sure the animals stay healthy and avoid disease is another important part of a volunteer’s duties.

If you want to help out at ARK but prefer something a bit less hands-on then why not become a fundraiser and make the most of your creativity and people skills to bring on new volunteers and donors to the cause?

As you can see there are several ways you can use your free time and your unique talents to benefit others while you are in Japan. It can be challenging, it can be frustrating, but from experience I can honestly say that volunteering will be one of the most rewarding and enlightening things you will ever do. So what are you waiting for? Get online now and find out how you can help.

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