Senior Volunteers

Japan's seniors possess valuable skills, but face language barriers outside Japan. We provide translators and arrange for these seniors to share their skills as volunteers in local communities overseas.

Sending skilled Japanese seniors overseas

As the generation that drove Japan’s rapid growth reaches retirement age, an increasing number of older Japanese are pursuing a second route to fulfillment by giving back to society. At the same time, many developing countries require the skills, expertise, and knowledge that Japan’s seniors possess. Existing senior volunteer programs had difficult language proficiency requirements, however, and this meant that most of the volunteers tended to be researchers or company employees who had lived overseas.

To address this missed opportunity, the Nippon Foundation established the Nippon Skilled Volunteers Association (NISVA) in December 2004 as a skilled senior volunteer dispatching program to enable seniors to participate in overseas assistance projects. The program sends volunteers who possess everyday skills like welding or sewing to help improve the lives of people in developing countries including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.

The basic qualifications required of NISVA’s volunteers are that they be men or women between the ages of 50 and 70 and in good health. They must be enthusiastic about working hard to use their skills and knowledge to contribute to a local community, and are usually posted for a period of one to two years. The program assigns local assistants as interpreters, making it possible for many seniors who had previously been shut out of overseas volunteer activities because of language barriers, including retired company employees and members of the Self-Defense Forces, and housewives, to engage in international cooperation.

Assignments are determined through interviews and assessments of programs requested by NGO’s, local governments, industry groups, private-sector companies, and schools in developing countries, focusing on the project’s necessity, public benefit, independence, and sustainability. To ensure the project’s sustainability, the costs of the volunteer’s activities and lodging are in principle paid by the host organization. Organizations agreeing to this approach are given priority when assigning volunteers.

NISVA began actually sending senior volunteers from 2005, differentiating itself with other dispatch programs in ways including its qualifications required of volunteers, method for determining assignments, and use of local interpreters. Compared with other projects, however, host organizations bore a greater responsibility in terms of project costs and lodging, and initially this made it difficult to arrange assignments for the volunteers. With assistance from the Nippon Foundation and partner organizations, however, programs were developed and as their reputation and reliability grew among host organizations and surrounding communities, the number of requests for volunteers gradually grew.

NISVA opened an office and obtained NGO certification in the Philippines in 2008. In Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the program receives assistance from local NGOs in placing volunteers. As a result, the number of senior volunteers dispatched grew from 11 in 2005 to 34 in 2009, and has remained above 30 every year since then. These senior volunteers overcome differences in language and lifestyle, and through their flexible efforts make solid, lasting contributions. Passing on skills and techniques also deepens grass-root exchanges, leading to a sense of closer ties between these local communities and Japan.

The fact that NISVA’s flexible approach is not oriented toward transferring technologies is a unique feature of the program, and has also increased the independence of the counterpart institutions. At one project in the municipality of Sual in the Philippines, senior volunteers have been sent since 2007 to teach welding and sewing. This led to the town’s welding training center receiving certification by the Philippine government. The town also opened a store to sell articles sewed by local residents.

NISVA is expanding its volunteer destinations beyond the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka to include Myanmar and Cambodia. The number of senior volunteers grew to 60 in 2013 and will be 80 in 2014, and from 2015 NISVA aims to be sending 100 volunteers annually.