Nurturing young people who will shoulder the future is an enormously important task. As an organization devoted to finding solutions to social issues, the Nippon Foundation puts a great deal of effort into encouraging student volunteers and offering scholarships in order to foster the development of a new generation of leaders able to take action.
The Gap Between Aspirations and Action
The desire by young people to serve their community has been on the rise since the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. In a Cabinet Office survey undertaken in January 2012, 70.1% of respondents in their twenties said they wanted to be of use to society, more than 10 points higher than in the previous survey, carried out before the earthquake. These findings raise a new question, however. If so many more young people want to be of service to society, why are so few doing anything?
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Basic Survey on Social Life, conducted in 2011, the proportion of respondents who did volunteer work during the preceding twelve months was highest among people between the ages of 40 and 44, at 35.6%, and lowest among people 25 to 29 years of age, at 16.5%. The ratio for those between the ages of 20 to 24, at 21.2%, was slightly higher than that for people 75 years of age or older but was the third lowest among all age brackets. Although the proportion of people with volunteer experience did increase for all age groups compared to the previous survey conducted in 2006, the increase for 25- to 29-year-olds was a mere 0.7 points—significantly lower than the 2.5-point increase for 20- to 24-year olds.
Taro Tamura, representative director of the Institute for Human Diversity and a chief policy planning officer in the Reconstruction Agency, notes the surprise he felt when he visited Tohoku right after the earthquake and saw how few young people were there:
“Times have changed since the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995. Though the population has increased from 124 million to 128 million, the number of 18 year olds has fallen from 1.8 million to 1.2 million. The weak economy, meanwhile, has caused a surge in the proportion of workers who are not regular employees, from 20.9% to 34.9%. There just aren’t as many young people with the financial means to do volunteer work. For us, this means we have to assess needs and figure out where they are greatest and then use the limited resources available as efficiently as possible. At the same time, we need people who can serve as leaders and see these projects through to completion.”
Community Work Nurtures Leaders
The Nippon Foundation provides support for initiatives that allow young people to act on their desire to serve the community. A key concept guiding this assistance is the “training of leaders.”
Since April 15, 2011, just a month after the earthquake, the Nippon Foundation sent more than 5,000 students from 200 Japanese colleges to Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures through its Student Volunteer Center, also known as “Gakuvo”—a name taken from the Japanese word for student (gakusei) and volunteer. Most of the groundwork for the operations is laid by student interns, who have made a one-year commitment to volunteer at the center. Experienced volunteers, meanwhile, team up with local government agencies and nonprofit organizations to assess needs and coordinate the operations. The programs are modified in line with changing needs change. Even today, volunteers continue to be dispatched.
Gakuvo director, Takeshi Nishio, expresses the hope that young men and women will grow through their experiences as volunteers:
“After the earthquake, there was talk about how volunteers would only get in the way if they went to Tohoku. However, Gakuvo was careful to obtain accurate information on the situation from the Nippon Foundation’s headquarters for disaster relief and from NPOs in the disaster areas. Based on that knowledge, it sent a large number of students who felt they had something to give. It turned out that the needs in the stricken areas far outweighed the help that was available. A growing number of students have participated as volunteers more than once. It’s my hope their experiences are not just a one-time deal but touch them at a deeper level and help them become volunteer leaders in the future.”
Yusuke Matsuda, representative director of Teach for Japan, an organization that helps children with limited educational opportunities reach their full potential, believes that community work offers experiences that inspire future leaders in a broad range of fields:
“Young people’s values are undergoing a transformation. Even if you get a job in a large corporation, your position in that company is no longer assured. Community service is coming to be viewed as one of the things you can do when you’re in your twenties to lay the foundation for a successful career over the long-term. Teach for Japan attracts a large number of talented young people, even though the activities and training are demanding and compensation is minimal. In the course of teaching children who lack educational opportunities, the volunteers themselves change and grow. The experience of successfully reaching a goal together with the children will serve the volunteers in the future in a range of fields outside education, including business, government, politics, and even activities on the global stage.”
Countries across the globe confront a host of social issues. Many problems do not lend themselves to a quick solution, and some require cooperation that transcends national boundaries. Young people around the world who can serve as future leaders are needed, as Nishio notes:
“The long list of problems we must cope with internationally include poverty, discrimination, and environmental problems. In Japan, an uneasy future awaits young people today because of the graying population, declining birthrate, and weak economy. Through their volunteer activities, students can meet people from all walks of life, expand their horizons, and become well-balanced individuals.”
The Nippon Foundation will continue to focus on supporting young people by encouraging their aspirations and passion, and helping them become leaders.