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I was incredibly fortunate to have spent the month of September in Japan visiting my daughter who teaches English as a second language. While visiting this amazing and beautiful country, I was honored to be able to spend some time at Hands On Tokyo, the volunteer center affiliated with the Hands On Network and the only Points of Light affiliate in Japan.

The Japanese people are incredibly kind, generous and considerate, from the man who left his train car to steer my husband and I to our destination to the couple who shared their dinner with us at the Hanshin Tigers’ baseball game. I imagined that the directors of Hands On Tokyo would be welcoming, and they were not only welcoming, but enthusiastic and infectious.

My gracious hosts, Mimi Yoshii, Co-Director and Aya Higa, Co-Director warmly welcomed me to their office in the Minato area of Tokyo. The office was bright, full of schedules and deadlines and event planning. But these two dynamic ladies took time from their busy schedules to tell me about Hands On Tokyo’s many activities.

Hands on Tokyo was founded in 2006 by a group of volunteers including a woman who had been active at Hands On Atlanta. The really neat thing about Hands on Tokyo is their model of partnering the needs of the community with their 5,000+ corporate and individual volunteers. Mimi Yoshii said with understandable pride, “we are unique in that we are the go between for corporate projects and those who need help.” Hands On Tokyo is also distinguished by Japanese and foreign nationals volunteering side by side and as Aya Higa related, “about 60% of volunteers are foreigners living in Japan.”

Interest in Hands On Tokyo really took off after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Many foreigners stepped forward to offer help, which, under the dire circumstance, was quickly accepted. I asked if the foreigners were viewed in a positive light and Aya Higa stated that the Japanese recipients of help truly appreciated all the faces from other lands. I could only imagine the monumental tasks this organization faced at that time.

I asked about the challenges they face today and as you would expect, they have the same challenges we all face. Background checks are becoming a necessity as is the need for new and meaningful projects. They too experience lopsided periods of time in which there are more volunteers than projects.

Mimi Yoshii emphasized their desire to create an ease of volunteering to encourage the Japanese people to become more involved. One of the barriers to volunteering is the desire by the Japanese people to not shame their friends and neighbors by highlighting the fact that they are in need, a practice referred to as the “culture of shaming.” It reminded me to be more careful when working with clients, so as not to let our desire to help overshadow clients’ need to be treated with dignity and respect.

Mimi and Aya lit up when talking about the interns they work with primarily during summer. These young volunteers, even though they may initially join to work in the office, bring fresh new ideas, something Hands On Tokyo loves to cultivate. One intern, they recalled, a dancer, began a program that brought dance into a nursing home. The residents not only loved it, they asked “when can we do it again?” It quickly became a staple at that nursing home.

Hands On Tokyo cultivates their volunteers by encouraging them to become volunteer leaders. Every project has a volunteer leader on hand. These volunteers demonstrate leadership abilities and possess the skills and experience needed to lead a team. Every month team leaders meet to discuss issues, challenges and methods of motivating and keeping the volunteers on track. A few of the many projects include Special Olympics bowling and basketball, senior home activities, English lessons for the blind, assistance to farmers, rice ball making for single mothers and excursions for Down syndrome children.

Crane made and given to me by a total stranger

Crane made and given to me by a total stranger

Hands On Tokyo volunteers can conveniently sign up for an activity through the website portal. Besides the ongoing projects, there are volunteering events such as “A Taste for Volunteering,” and the “Spring charity concert for Tohoku.”

Recruitment for Hands On Tokyo is through their website and by corporate partners providing interested employees. Aya Higa said that in Japan, if a crowd of people is asked to volunteer, no one will raise their hand, and so their strategy is for volunteers to ask people they know directly, face to face, a practice that yields much better results.

All in all, it was encouraging to find volunteer management in Japan mirroring the same challenges and solutions that we face in the US. I was deeply impressed by the dedication, excitement and pure joy of Hands On Tokyo’s co-directors, Aya Higa and Mimi Yoshii. Their hospitality was so appreciated.

Thank you ladies for sharing your passion for volunteerism with me and for showing me that the rewards and challenges of volunteer management are universal. Visiting Hands On Tokyo is a treasured moment from a wonderful trip to an amazing country.

Arigatou gozaimasu!