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NICE (Never-ending International Workcamps Exchange) Bridging people and local communities and world

Yoichiro Tsuji
PR department, NICE

This month's Close UP features NICE, a nonprofit organization playing a central role in Japan in the field of international volunteer workcamps. In addition to organizing international workcamps in Japan and other countries in Asia, NICE has been sending a number of Japanese volunteers to various workcamps around the world. NICE was originally founded by seven young people who participated in the international workcamps abroad and decided to introduce this volunteer system to Japan. Yoichiro Tsuji, who himself was a workcamp volunteer when he was a college student and now manages PR activities of NICE, told us about the organization's activities as well as the benefits of the international workcamps.

Please tell us about the basics of international workcamps.

A.International workcamps are a form of volunteer service for international cooperation in which volunteers from around the world share living space for two to three weeks and work together for a needed project along with people from local communities. Generally, volunteer members stay in a community center or a school building with their own sleeping bags and take turns in preparing their own meals while working on assigned activities during the day. The need for each project varies in a wide range of fields. For example, participants may help build an "ecolodge" or maintain mountains and forests for environmental projects. They may organize activities with children from orphanages as a project in the welfare field. Digging a well or building a school can be among the projects for local development. Such international workcamps aim not only to contribute to local community's needs through volunteer activities but also to provide an opportunity with each participant to elevate themselves through personal progress.

How was the international workcamp originally started?

A.The history of international workcamps goes back to 1920 in Europe after the World War I. Based on the recognition that the lack of mutual understanding between the countries led to a tragic war, young people from France and Germany worked together and restored devastated farms. Since then, a movement for promoting mutual understanding by working on a project together gradually spread throughout Europe and to the United States. In 1948, the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS) was founded under the support of UNESCO and took the lead role to expand the networks of the international workcamps as it is today. Currently, 107 member nongovernmental / nonprofit organizations from 94 countries are registered with CCIVS and continue to share information about volunteer programs that each member manages. They also send and receive volunteers between the member organizations.

A scene from a workcamp in Japan

How was NICE established?

A.Shinichiro Kaizawa, a representative of NICE, took a trip to visit 12 countries when he was a college student. Kaizawa joined international workcamps in Poland and England and worked as a volunteer along with other youths from different countries. Kaizawa was attracted by the advantages that workcamps could offer and wanted to join similar activities after he returned home. However, he found that no organization from Japan was listed as a member of the CCIVS, and that one from India and one from Bangladesh were the only two organizations listed from Asia. Instead, Kaizawa decided to make one by himself. He gathered a total of seven members and started NICE in 1990 as the first organization that hosts international workcamps in Japan. In 1992, NICE became the first member from East Asian of CCIVS. In 1997, NICE launched the Network for Voluntary Development in Asia (NVDA) to promote international workcamps in Asia. Today, NICE maintains information of about 3,000 international workcamps in 100 countries around the world and has gathered as many as 45,370 volunteers who participated in the camps since its establishment.

Tell us about NICE's visions.

©NICE / Colorful logo

A."To make a colorful & healthy world together"—this phrase represents NICE's visions. By saying a "colorful world," we mean the world which people with a variety of races, genders, religions, values, and other differences can share without discrimination and prejudice. With regard to "healthy world," on the other hand, we are speaking of not only human physical and mental health but also of healthy global environment. In other words, our overall goal is to develop a healthy global society where diverse ecosystems, cultures, and personalities can be present together with positive energy, and international workcamps are our means to realize such goals. Our organization logo uses a rainbow, which expresses our passion to become a bridge to connect people to people, people to communities, and people to earth.

What are the rules that participants in workcamps are required to follow?

A.There are largely two main rules. First, volunteers of workcamps are asked to use English as a common language between other volunteers from different countries. Secondly, volunteers are required to arrange their own transportation for both ways between their home and camp location. They have to buy an air ticket, enter the country, and find a place such as a train station where they are told to come to meet a staff member from a local workcamp organization, all on their own. It may sound a bit challenging for some people. As for English, they don't have to be fluent and still can understand each other by communicating from heart to heart. Volunteers will do fine as long as they keep a positive attitude and energy for taking actions. It will become a milestone experience for them by overcoming difficulties such as traveling alone to a place they don't know or being forced to speak English as foreign language. If anyone is interested in joining a workcamp, we recommend them to come to an orientation NICE regularly holds and listen to the experiences of former volunteers.

©NICE / At a workcamp in Philippine

What was your motivation to participate in the international workcamp?

©NICE / At a workcamp in Uganda

A.I was studying development economics at college and felt like there were things I wouldn't understand unless I went to those developing countries and directly saw for myself what was going on there. So I took a break from college and joined international workcamps in Mongolia, Vietnam, India, Ghana, and Ireland. What I discovered there was that people seemed to be enjoying their lives even though their countries were poor. Until then, I only had negative images about people in developing countries, thinking that they were people suffering from poverty or hunger. Their living conditions were tough and were nothing comparable to those in Japan, but everyone was trying to make their lives as best as possible. I was reminded that there were various forms of happiness.

What was your biggest gain from participating in the workcamp?

A.The most valuable experience for me was that I was able to exchange honest opinions between volunteers from different countries. Volunteers did have some free time after work during the workcamp, and we often spent it by discussing many things over drinks. Many participants from other countries had a clear view of about themselves, such as what they liked and how they wanted to live their lives. I was motivated by them and started thinking about the same things myself. At the camp, I also rediscovered my identity as a Japanese and also as an Asian. Up until that time, the goal for my future was to find international work to help developing countries, but my mind changed after the camp, and I became feeling stronger to do something good for my own country. That is why I am working for the PR department of NICE.

We understand that it's been hard to promote the participation in international workcamps in Japan.

A.There are many people who are interested in the workcamp, but our society is making it rather difficult for them to actually participate in the program. About eighty percent of the workcamp participants from Japan are students. However, junior and senior college students need to spend most of their time searching for jobs after the graduation. On the other hand, many freshman and sophomore students don't know about the workcamps and miss a chance to join. Some students take a leave of absence from school. Others may wait until they graduate from the college and have a job experience for a few years. In Japan, your oversea experience as a volunteer worker does not always count as an advantage for your job search. Therefore, many young people would choose to spend their time studying for licenses and certificates that would help them find better jobs.

©NICE / A scene from a workshop in Japan

I heard that there are many non-student participants in Europe.

At a workcamp in Hokkaido, Japan

A.In Europe, it is socially acceptable to spend some time, a year or longer, for gaining life-enrichment experiences between high school and college, during college years, between college and work, or between work and work. Some people choose to work as a volunteer, while others travel around. Therefore, volunteers at many international workcamps there vary widely in a range of their age. What is making a major difference is that such experiences add social values to people's lives in Europe. There has been a movement in Japan for promoting a system similar to "gap year," and NICE is actively supporting such movement. We need to change this situation that is making it hard for those who have interest in outside world to take a leave from where they are.

We understand that you have been operating emergency workcamps at some devastated areas following the Great East Japan Earthquake.

A.We are currently running workcamps in such locations as Kurikoma Kogen in Miyagi Prefecture, Aizuwakamatsu City in Fukushima Prefecture, and Rikuzentakata City in Iwate Prefecture. We had run workcamps in these locations prior to the disaster and had established networks with local volunteer organizations. Such networks have been a major advantage for us this time to operate emergency support activities without relying on local people and communities for securing our own food, accommodation, and such basic necessities. As I spoke earlier, international workcamps began as a recovery project of damaged farms after the war. What NICE can do here is to continue supporting the recovery process of the disaster areas for a long term while making full use of our experiences and knowledge of running workcamps.

Lastly, please give a message to our readers.

A.In addition to standard international workcamp programs, NICE provides tons of information about a variety of workcamp programs, from a weekend camp to a year-long "Vola-year" program. If you find the one that matches a work field and location of your interest, we strongly recommend that you take action and join that program. "A detour that is one-eightieth long of your lifetime"—this is my favorite saying, and I think it is totally O.K. to take a break for a year or so in your entire life and spend that time just for volunteering, traveling, or reading. What is important is that you give yourself a chance to come out of the situation in which you are currently placed. International workcamps can be such a chance, as we believe. Workcamp volunteers are neither a traveler nor a local citizen, and this position will give you a unique viewpoint when you see an outside world you haven't seen before. We want all of our international workcamp volunteers to gain many experiences and share what they see and feel with other people.

A staff meeting at NICE office in Shinjuku