Many older Japanese are interested in doing volunteer work overseas, but are hesitant to do so because of the language barrier. A program organized by the Nippon Skilled Volunteers Association, established by the Nippon Foundation, makes it possible for such individuals to go to Southeast Asia by providing them with assistants who can speak both Japanese and the local language. In this article, three volunteers dispatched to Indonesia spoke in the fall of 2013 about their experiences.
Working Around the Language Barrier
In the fiscal 2013 Annual Report on the Aging Society, the Japanese government noted that Japan’s population is aging at one of the fastest rates in the world and underscored the importance of promoting the participation of older people in society. Particular emphasis was laid on enabling retirees and others to use their skills and experience by working in developing countries. In reality, however, proficiency in English continues to be a must for government and government-related senior volunteer programs, causing many older people to give up on their dream of going abroad, despite strong motivation and credentials.
Seeking to enable seniors who have professional expertise but no foreign language skills to do volunteer work in developing countries, the Nippon Foundation established Nippon Skilled Volunteers Association in 2004. Unlike other programs, NISVA pairs volunteers with assistants who can interpret for them. It also assigns coordinators to the main countries it works with to assess the specific needs of the host organizations and find volunteers best suited for each position.
A substantial amount of time is spent screening the candidates and laying the groundwork. A health exam is required to determine whether applicants are fit enough to live abroad for at least one year. For this reason, the final decision on where the volunteer will be sent can take from a few months to two years. To date, a total of 273 people have been sent by NISVA to 10 countries.
Japanese Seniors Support Indonesia’s Human Resource Training
Ten Japanese seniors are now NISVA volunteers in Indonesia, a country enjoying remarkable economic growth. Support for their activities is provided by Itsuo Tanigawa, NISVA’s local coordinator and a 20-year resident of the country. Tanigawa was originally sent to Indonesia by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (currently Panasonic Corp.). He was about to be transferred back to Japan when he was offered a position at Matsushita Gobel Foundation, an institution set up jointly by Matsushita and a local Indonesian firm to develop human resources. Tanigawa accepted the offer and remained in the country, supervising Indonesian technicians and providing training and organizational support for small and medium-sized companies.
“International recognition of the art of Japanese manufacturing has spread as Japanese specialists go abroad, and the level of production technology in the countries where they have been posted has risen. It’s part of the process that Japanese call kaizen, or ongoing change and improvement. Indonesians, like Japanese, are hardworking, but there aren’t many people here capable of implementing kaizen programs. I was convinced we needed Japanese specialists who have spearheaded such programs in Japan and could oversee similar initiatives here.”
Tanigawa was approached by NISVA and offered the position of Indonesia coordinator. He says he decided to accept it because his goals and the organization’s needs were a perfect fit. While Tanigawa wanted to bring in Japanese specialists who could guide the development of manufacturing in Indonesia, NISVA wanted to find host organizations that would make full use of the talents of the individuals who had signed up as volunteers. Tanigawa’s appointment created new volunteer opportunities in member firms of the Indonesia Mold & Dies Industry Association, related vocational schools, and classes run by the Matsushita Gobel Foundation.
NISVA is now taking steps to add Myanmar to the countries it dispatches volunteers to, which at present mainly include the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. It also plans to increase the number of senior volunteers sent abroad to 100 in fiscal 2015 (April 2015 to March 2016) an increase from 80 in fiscal 2014.
Inspired by Mother Teresa - Asako Nakagawa, Nurse
Asako Nakagawa worked as a nurse at a hospital in Hyogo Prefecture for 27 years, providing care for people with disabilities. Over the course of her career, she helped a large number of patients take their first steps toward building new lives for themselves in the community.
“I became a nurse not because I wanted to help sick people but because I wanted to get a good job. It was only later on, hearing about Mother Teresa, that I began to take pride in my work as a nurse. And I began to dream of volunteering at the Hospital for the Dying established by Mother Teresa in Kolkata, India.”
However, when Nakagawa retired and finally had the chance to go to India, she realized language stood between her and her future plans. “I needed to know English to be able to go, but I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for this. I couldn’t qualify for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s Senior Volunteers program because of the foreign language requirement. I felt like I had used work as an excuse for not studying and had only myself to blame. Just when I was about to give up, I saw a NISVA advertisement. I was so excited when I found out the program provided volunteers with an interpreter, and I immediately sent in an application.”
About six months after registering as a volunteer, Nakagawa got her assignment; she was to supervise nurses at a clinic at Matsushita Gobel Foundation in Indonesia and oversee the health care system for the staff. It was now, after turning 60, that she was about to make her first trip abroad.
Nakagawa assumed there would be an interpreter waiting for her upon her arrival. To her surprise though, she was told by Tanigawa that she should choose a person with whom she thought she could work. She decided to look for an assistant with knowledge of nursing. Meanwhile, in the month it took to find the right person, she had to get by without an interpreter.
“Since my work was in a clinic, I had a good idea of what was going on. It was hard wanting to help but with no way of telling them this. On my third day there, one of the nurses showed me Google’s free online translation service and said, ‘Now we can talk.’ I was ecstatic. The first Indonesian words I learned were terima kasih, or ‘thank you,’ and sama sama, or ‘You’re welcome.’ With these two phrases and body language, I was somehow able to communicate my feelings.”
Nakagawa eventually found somebody who had worked as a nurse in Japan and could interpret for her, and with that interpreter’s assistance, she could now buckle down to work. “Indonesians are serious and hardworking. But when I asked the nurses what they wanted to learn, they instead asked me, ‘What can you teach us?’ It is hard to make adequate progress with that approach. I hope that by the end of my two-year term, I’ll have been able to get the nurses to take the initiative in learning new things and asking for guidance.”
Conveying the Spirit of Craftsmanship - Norimasa Miyata, Metal Mold Designer
Norimasa Miyata specializes in designing metal molds used in the production of plastic parts and products. His line of work is considered one of the top jobs in the world of industrial design, since metal molds are used to manufacture everything from household goods to automotive parts. The number of requests NISVA receives for these designers is especially high today because industrial design has become increasingly digitalized, with computer-aided design and other software replacing plans that were originally drawn by hand.
Miyata says he became interested in doing volunteer work overseas about 10 years ago, partly because of his experiences living and working in China and Hong Kong. “After I got back to Japan, I was put in charge of administrative work, and I realized I was better suited for jobs that let me use my technological know-how. If possible, I wanted to work overseas with younger people who are passionate about their jobs. Hoping to find volunteer programs that would let me share my experience with young people in developing countries, I did an online search and found NISVA.”
Miyata works at ATMI Cikarang, a private manufacturing and engineering vocational school located in an industrial zone in a suburb of Jakarta. Students who finish the basic course requirements are put in charge of producing goods for nearby companies, giving them on-the-job training and the chance to improve their skills. Miyata does not teach the students; instead, he offers workshops on the newest three-dimensional CAD to instructors of design classes.
“I was surprised that the machine tools were all the newest models and the school’s standards were so high. It was a challenge I hadn’t anticipated. My role is to teach them about 3D CAD and other new technology. But for me, what’s most important when producing metal molds for plastic parts today, just as in the past, is the finishing touches in the process. What I’d really like to convey to the young people of Indonesia is the spirit of craftspeople, who repeat a process again and again until they are satisfied with what they have made.”
Experiencing an Entirely Different Culture - Michiko Kozawa, Japanese Teacher
When she was younger, Michiko Kozawa taught English at junior high school level. Although she quit working when she got married, she continued to use her English, helping foreign researchers as a volunteer and taking part in local international exchange events with her family. However, the generous giving of aid from countries all around the world following the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Japan in January 1995 made Kozawa reflect more deeply about the world outside Japan. She resolved to go abroad so that she could contribute in some way to another country and just before turning 50, she got her credentials to teach Japanese.
“My two daughters had grown up, so I plucked up courage and accepted a long-term overseas assignment. I spent seven months in China, followed by a year in Taiwan teaching Japanese. I then decided I wanted to experience life in a country with an entirely different culture, so I signed up with NISVA. It took them a while to decide on my assignment, and the wait was difficult for me. When I found out I had been assigned to Indonesia, a country with a large Muslim population and a culture very different from my own, I was thrilled.”
Kozawa teaches six Japanese classes a week for the Matsushita Gobel Foundation. She has 19 people in her class, including staff from nearby Panasonic factories, doctors from the factories’ clinics, and young people living in the neighborhood.
“Most of my students see Japanese as a way to get ahead on the job, but there is one of the boys I teach who loves the idol group JKT48. He wants to learn Japanese so he can go to Akihabara one day and see the original Japanese idol group, AKB48, in person. He joined the class because he happened to see a ‘students wanted’ sign for our Japanese class that Tanigawa had put on a factory fence. My students are all really motivated. In just three months, they were able to have simple conversations in Japanese. My interpreter also helps me out in class, so I can teach the students more efficiently. By the end of my two-year term, I’d like to learn the Indonesian language so I can gain a more in-depth knowledge of the country.”
Photographs by Kei Kodera