Ken May

Rising sun, helping hands

The work of the JICA organisation

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is bringing thousands of Japanese youth into the global limelight with its volunteer-based development projects.

Story and photos by Ken May

While dining at a popular Japanese restaurant in Bangkok, Maiko Hashimoto, right, and Norihide Furukawa reminisce about their recent volunteer experiences in rural Africa.

Lasting from 1986 to 1990, Japan thrived in a period of skyrocketing prosperity that is popularly known as the “Bubble Economy” (baburu keiki). The price of Japan’s stock and land surged in value, as the country’s economy grew to the second largest in the world. As a result, Japan heavily invested in financial projects across the globe, as it became more conscious of its international role. Coinciding with this prosperity, the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) industry also boomed in Japan, as its youth strived to improve English skills to gain a strategic edge in job placements and advancements within a company.

The bubble of prosperity collapsed in the 1990s, and the price of Japanese assets and land equity went on a downward spiral. Japanese banks were greatly impaired by eroding capital and massive debt, which was inflamed by easily obtainable credit they had given during the “Bubble” years. This economic meltdown is known as “the Lost Decade” (ushinawareta).

Japan’s university graduates were hard hit by this collapse. Lifelong career prospects as “salary men” at a single company were vanishing. Female employment as office workers was also losing its stability. Nevertheless, these graduates were highly educated with solid work ethics – and many had acquired English and global awareness as beneficial job skills.

As a result, the “lost generation” started to question traditional job expectations and gender roles. And many unemployed youth, both men and women, searched for opportunities abroad. Some traveled individually across the globe as tourists – and others eagerly enrolled in volunteer organizations such as Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Japanese Spirit of Volunteerism

“You must have a strong heart and a spirit of motivation,” says Yu Maeda, who served as a JICA volunteer in Thailand. His experience included translating texts into multiple languages (English, Thai, and Japanese), while promoting tourism and cultural exhibitions at the Ayutthaya Historical Studies Center and the TAT office in Ayutthaya. Yu enrolled in JICA because he “wanted to know more about Thailand” after writing his Master’s thesis about Akha hilltribe members who migrate to Bangkok for work on Khaosan Road.

Norihide Furukawa joined JICA to “gain practical experience; not just academic experience.” He was a Youth Activity Coordinator in Malawi, who polished his English skills while working with African children, since this second language served as a common tongue. “My interest has always been in international development,” he says, “it was something I always wanted to do.”

“It is good to combine our perspectives together,” says Maiko Hashimoto, who enrolled because she enjoys working in a multi-national environment, “It is very important to think about development at each other’s level.” As a JICA volunteer in Ghana, where communication is limited by a saturation of tribal languages, English became the language that she was most comfortable speaking. Her tasks included teaching sexual reproductive health in public schools and helping nurses with HIV/AIDS awareness programs at government hospitals.

JICA’s mission

JICA was designed to bridge the gap between Japan and developing countries by taking a grassroots approach to ensure that millions of impoverished people gain access to education, health care, and other opportunities. The program focuses on country-specific development in seven fields: agriculture, processing maintenance, sports, forestry and fisheries, education and culture, health and hygiene, and civil engineering.

After a highly selective recruitment process, Japanese volunteers undergo rigorous physical, intellectual, and linguistic training before serving two-year assignments abroad. Yu claims that being emerged in this all-expansive training really “helped him to think for himself while living abroad.” Norihide describes his training as an unusual experience that involved living with over 200 people in one place for several months. During training, volunteers were discouraged from speaking in Japanese, since they were expected to converse in English or learn the host country’s target language. “It was a bit challenging,” he admits, “but I liked it.”

Although Japan had initiated technical cooperation programs as far back as 1954, the country’s roots of volunteerism really began with the establishment of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) program in 1965, which was followed by the creation of JICA in 1974.

Since its inception, over 28,000 JICA volunteers have served in Asia, Africa, South America, the Mid-East, and other locations. In 2007, there were nearly 2,500 active JICA volunteers in the field. In addition, Japan has provided developing countries with a large number of Japanese-based technical trainees – more than 320,000 since 1954.

Although the number of volunteers was relatively low in the beginning, statistics show a steady increase. In fact, the collapse in Japan’s bubble economy ignited an even greater curiosity about volunteer opportunities abroad. In 1994, the total number of Japan-trained technical trainees topped 100,000 for the first time, and the number of JICA volunteers rose above the 20,000 benchmark in the year 2000. Even as Japan’s economy stabilized, the hunger for unique volunteer experience via JICA continued to grow.

Overcoming Hardships and Stereotype

Once in the field, volunteers are expected to live and work side-by-side with the local community. This is a challenge for many Japanese youth, who are accustomed to the comforts and wealth in the land of the Rising Sun. Nevertheless, many volunteers thrive on the experience.

“I had to walk 1.5 km every day to fetch water from the nearest pond,” remembers Maiko, who often had to boil and filter her own water, “It was a challenge to survive by making my own fires.” Nevertheless, she felt these hardships were worthwhile, since “living in the same environment as locals helps us to solve problems together.”

One of her difficulties was the constant electrical blackouts that she experienced in Ghana, but she optimistically recalls that the even the darkness helped her to think about life and remember why she was volunteering. “I can appreciate nature and the environment much better,” she says now.

Norihide was stationed in a remote village, one day drive from Malawi’s capital city, and far away from the bustle of the heavily populated cities that he remembered back home. His hardships often included finding basic equipment at the school. Classes of as many as 150 students gathered outside to scrawl notes on homemade backboards, while he hunted for people to donate footballs to the school’s athletic program. When it rained, nobody came to school, so he helped coordinate a feeding program that dished out rice porridge to students.

One hardship is convincing locals to overcome their perceptions of Japanese people. “What they know about our country is that it is rich,” Maiko states, so people often begged for money and other stuff. It was also frustrating how some locals broadly categorized Japanese as “white” people. Norihide notes that Africans often referred to him as Chinese, but admits that it was part of the educational experience that he had to eventually overcome. “I think they were happy that I was there. They started to see me as Japanese.”

For some JICA volunteers, the hardship also included attitudes about them after returning home. Both Norihide and Maiko point out that volunteer work isn’t as respected yet in Japan like the Peace Corps is in the United States. Some employers feel that two years is too much time spent away from traditional work at a Japanese company. “It can be a disadvantage,” to finding jobs afterward, Norihide admits.

Seeking Confident Women

One difficulty as a JICA volunteer is rising above the country’s traditional gender roles; however, a large number of Japanese women are doing exactly that as they survive challenges abroad. In 2004, the percentage of female JICA volunteers surpassed the rate of men. Over 12,500 women have now volunteered for JICA, and this number is set to increase.

Maiko explains that many Japanese women want to “test themselves in a different country, too.” She had to confront her shyness to become a more effective volunteer. While teaching reproductive health to African men and women, she sometimes “felt awkward promoting condoms in front of large groups of men.” However, in order to increase awareness about AIDS prevention, she had to learn to deal with the intimate questions of students.

“As a teacher, I wasn’t afraid or ashamed of anything,” she points out, and over time she could observe examples of changing attitudes. One day a boy promised he would take his girlfriend to the health clinic with him. She also helped AIDS patients generate a small income from activities such as soap making, which included attempts to change villagers’ perceptions about how the disease is spread.

Volunteer experience does make Japanese women feel stronger and more confident, and for this reason, Maiko strived to get local women more involved in development projects as well. She explains that it is women who still carry the water, and that male villagers often refused to do this task even when paid. “You do what you think needs to be done,” Maiko suggests, “When you teach them how to sew, you are also teaching them to be more independent.”

Keeping Dreams Alive

The two-year experience as a JICA volunteer changes one for life. It is understandable therefore that a significant number of JICA alumni prefer to remain overseas and work on other development projects. Many volunteers also re-enroll in the JICA program after finishing their contract.

“International development is complex and difficult. At the same time, I have become even more interested in the subject than ever before,” Norihide explains, “You can use JICA to carry out your dream, but you shoulder a responsibility we should never forget.”

“One of JICA’s purposes is to educate young Japanese persons through volunteer work. If I go to a developing country, I can help,” Yu explains, “but I also get something in return.”

All three have kept their dream of global participation alive. Norihide presently works as an Intern at the UNESCO office in Bangkok, while continuing with his Master’s studies in the Anthropology of Education. Yu resides in Thailand and utilizes his multi-lingual skills for a Japanese-Thai company. Maiko will seek a Master’s Degree in Public Health at Mahidol University and hopes to work for a NGO after graduation.

Japan views these volunteers as a valuable investment. They not only help to raise a developing country to a higher level, but they also establish solid bonds between its citizens and communities abroad. This new trend of volunteerism reflects a growing global consciousness among its university graduates. Indirectly, JICA also demonstrates the EFL industry’s impact in the country. In just 1-2 generations, Japanese citizens have learned English skills to the point where they can now use them globally in third countries. With this language, many Japanese youth have survived the “lost decade” and etched out new paths on the global stage.


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