Wednesday, 30 July 2014


One of many weekend events I worked without pay as an ALT
 I've been volunteering since I was twelve. It's something that is important to me and that I enjoy. I was eager to continue volunteering when we moved to Japan and had my first opportunity just a month after we arrived, at a residential school/treatment center for troubled kids. Next came the orphanages, and they became something closer to an obsession than a volunteering opportunity. When I mentioned my volunteer work at my paid work (I was an ALT at the time) I was taken aback at some of the responses. Teachers commented that they also did a lot of volunteering... maintaining the school grounds or coaching school sports teams. Neither of those activities was actually voluntary, it was required of all teachers. They were simply expected to do it as unpaid overtime, and this was called volunteering. That goes against everything that makes volunteering meaningful to me, and I was frustrated at the comparison. Being exploited by your boss is not the same thing! Yet, I began to participate in more and more of these weird exactly-like-your-day-job-but-unpaid "volunteer" activities. I did weekend workshops, day-camps, over night camps, after work speech contest practice, texting lesson plans to teachers on Sundays... I was always happy to help out because I adored my students and I genuinely enjoyed the extra time outside of the classroom, but the extra time away from home became a real strain, especially once we had two puppies to care for. The kids were always happy to see me, but there was little acknowledgment from the adults that I was sacrificing my family time to be there. It was always treated as though I were merely complying with expectations, because that is what all the teachers were doing. In one particularly outrageous case I was told I should take paid leave on a day when I had been asked to help run a workshop because it didn't fall within my job description and therefore should be done on my own time. I stopped working as an ALT a year ago, but just yesterday I was asked if I could return to some of my duties on a volunteer basis. It used to really blow my mind, but having crossed over to the other side and looking now as a parent, I can see that it isn't only schools. Enforced "volunteering" is everywhere.

I was told I had to "volunteer" for one PTA activity a year, and hold a year long PTA committee position once per child I have in school. Cub Scouts require parents to "volunteer" at least four times a year. When I signed Tiger up to join the fire festival I didn't realise that every single parent was required to "volunteer" at the festival. Being childless doesn't get you out of it, either. The neighborhood associate requires regular "volunteering" for things like street cleaning and hedge trimming. This year it is our turn to act as the 班長 (hancho), meaning we are the representatives for our "block" of 19 houses. I have to attend meetings, distribute junk mail from the city council twice a month, collect fees, dance in the neighbourhood Bon Odori, run in the neighbourhood sports festival, turn up to the meeting hall at 6 am to clean it, weed the nature strips and more. I'm going to write more about this because I think there are some really good points to having an active community, but my experience so far has made me really wonder what my city taxes pay for. As far as I can see, everything is delegated to "volunteers" from the neighbourhood association. There's no real point to this post other than me complaining and sharing an aspect of Japanese culture that short term visitors may not encounter, so I'm going to close with a Japan Times article on the neighbourhood association system.

On the origins of the system:
“Chōnaikai actually started with Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537-98), and they were originally called gonin-gumi (five-person associations). Their purpose was social control. If any member spoke a word against Hideyoshi, all five members were executed. This helps explain why, even today, Japanese are afraid to speak out (against authority).”
The Japanese Wikipedia page traces the origins of chōnaikai to 1937, whereas the English page pushes the start back a bit further to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. While omitting these apparently darker roots, these sources, along with what’s taught in many Japanese elementary schools, highlight the World War II variation, tonari-gumi, or “next-door groups.” Contrary to the pleasant-sounding name, tonari-gumi served as a highly effective spy network to root out war dissenters, who were likely to be subsequently tortured and imprisoned for their views. It was probably for those reasons that occupying U.S. forces outlawed chōnaikai until the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951, returning sovereignty to the Japanese.
“The government still wants to keep chōnaikai for the same reason,” Ueda says. “If ever there’s a war, chōnaikai will prove invaluable.”
 Use by the local government:
The government supports chōnaikai in subtle ways. For example, they have members perform duties, like maintaining parks, that should be covered by tax money. The amount the government pays the chōnaikai is low: Ueda reports city hall paying only ¥120 per person per year for maintaining a park. The irony, he says, is that members in turn are expected to buy insurance for ¥165 in case they get injured while doing public works. “The government uses Japanese as a cheap labor force — almost slavery.”
Tiger's on summer holidays right now, so posts may be few and far between. Thank you for your patience :)
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  1. Mandatory volunteering is one of the reasons we chose to live on the edge of Tsukahara. No neighbors = no mandatory volunteering. It also helps to be a language-challenged foreigner.

    1. The deer and inoshishi don't try to get you to attend meetings? ;)

  2. I'll happily go back to the inoshishi if I decide to put down roots and build a house in Japan.

    1. You've been here for quite a while, right? Do let me know if you ever venture up to Oita :)


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