by John Domokos
When Japan was at its lowest point, in the aftermath of World War II, CARE set up a temporary office in Yokohama and helped more than 10 million impoverished Japanese build a better life. By 1987, Japan was one of the most prosperous countries in the world. That year, CARE Japan was founded to help developing countries mainly in Asia enjoy some of the basic rights the Japanese now take for granted, such as education, health and a good environment.
Compared to CARE in other industrialized countries, it is still a small operation, with only eight dedicated staff members, three of whom are full-time, and a similarly small budget. But through its efforts, it is having a hugely positive effect in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, as well as at home in Japan.
CARE Japan emphasizes two particular ideas – self-help and sustainable development. “We don’t want to force our thinking onto others,” says Satoshi Tamakuma, manager of the Program Division. “The final goal with our projects is for us to disappear and the project to remain.”
With all projects, it is local volunteers and communities who make the decisions, while CARE Japan offers know-how and support. It has developed its own system based on CARE International but focusing more and more on education as a long-term means to “make a difference and improve lives.”
In Thailand, for example, CARE Japan has organized a “Mobile Education Program.” A wagon carrying educational materials travels around the poor southeastern rural communities, delivering teaching sessions at local schools and organizing new local volunteer staffers to continue such education in each area. Issues covered are environmental and health-related-Thailand has suffered badly from deforestation, problems with drug abuse and HIV.
In another project, CARE Japan and CARE Thailand worked together with local villagers to convert a closed-down school into an environmental center. School groups from around the country are now attending events and workshops at the center and learning the importance and methods of environmental conservation.
In Cambodia, CARE Japan is working closely with the local community to increase educational opportunities for girls. Due to economic and social factors, large numbers of girls in Cambodia have been denied the chance to attend school. Parents either expect them to become housewives and do menial jobs, or they cannot afford schooling and need them to help around the home.
Since 2000, CARE Japan and CARE Cambodia have been holding workshops with parents, teachers and community members, often for women only, to address these issues. According to Tamakuma, one of the most difficult things is to gain the trust of the local community. “We don’t go in and tell them what to do, we talk about the issues and come up with possible actions together. Then they make a decision and do the implementation.”
Often, simple actions can make a big difference – installing a drainage system for the girls’ toilets made one school more accessible for girls. Other times, problems are more deep-rooted. “Slowly but surely, they learn the process of organizing these workshops and implementing changes,” says Tamakuma.
Within Japan, the focus is on raising awareness for such causes. “In Japan, we are not accustomed to helping people we can’t see. We have the tradition of helping people in our own communities,” he says. Another problem is the Japanese tend to think of helping developing countries in terms of “We give, you take. We are the ‘haves,’ you are the ‘have-nots.'”
CARE Japan is working hard to change this attitude through efforts such as the Rainbow Project. This is an exchange program where Japanese schoolchildren send unused stationery together with their artwork to Cambodian schools. Cambodian children then send their own artwork back to Japan. Through art, the children grow curious and learn more about each other’s cultures. They also explore their own culture as they think about how they should present it as art. Tamakuma says CARE Japan’s motto is “Tomo ni manabi, tomo ni hagukumu.” This translates to “Together we learn, together we grow.”
It will take time to change the mind-set of the Japanese in respect to helping developing countries, and for CARE Japan to reach a size comparable to other CARE international members. But, at the same time, Tamakuma does not think Japan should just blindly follow the western model of charity. Rather, he hopes to see Japanese charities and NGOs taking the best of western ideas and combining them with Japanese values as well as those of the local communities, to make for a holistic Asian approach.
To continue this, they need more support from individuals and companies. Corporate donations have dropped as the recession bites in Japan. Further, CARE Japan receives 80 percent of its donations for specific projects, leaving only a small amount for management and administration costs, as well as publicity campaigns.
And they need more coverage in the Japanese media, which only shows an interest when there is a big event. Tamakuma concludes, “(I hope) people in Japan become more interested in international co-operation. We need to learn more about the world, so at least we don’t cause more problems.”
Tamakuma and his colleagues have their work cut out. But very important work it is, and their achievements are proof that individuals can make a difference.
If you want to find out how you or your company can make a difference, contact the staff at CARE Japan. They will be happy to give you more information.