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Japan Youth Ecology League (Eco-League)

Mieko Osanai, representative director of JHP

Mieko Osanai, representative director of JHP

This month's Close UP features Japan Team of Young Human Power (JHP), an international nonprofit organization aiming to contribute to the betterment of education mainly in Cambodia. Since its establishment in 1993, JHP has been not only active in building schools and promoting music and art education in Cambodia but has also provided various support to victims of conflicts and disasters as well as their communities. Until today, JHP has sent as many as 1,500 volunteer members to different countries in need. The organization is represented by Mieko Osanai, who is best known in Japan as a script writer for the popular TV drama series, Sannen B-gumi Kinpachi Sensei. Since 2006, JHP has also been running Mieko Osanai International Volunteer College, an educational program for students and adults who are willing to learn and have actual experiences in international understanding and cooperation activities. For this interview, we visited Mrs. Osanai at the JHP office in Minato City and asked her to speak of the history of the organization and also the future prospective of the International Volunteer College, which is starting its seventh year this September.

Please tell us how you first became involved in international cooperation activities.

A. In 1990, as the Gulf Crisis occurres after Iraq attacked Kuwait, the international communities sent a multinational force joined by the U.S. and other countries to Saudi Arabia. Japan, however, chose not to take part of it, because of its constitution that explicitly says we will not fight in wars anymore. The country gave considerable financial support instead, which, however, was harshly criticized by other countries insisting that Japan only pays money so that it can stay away from the shedding of blood and sweat. I thought such criticism is unfair for us. And one day, I saw a small article in the newspaper about a group of Japanese college students who visited a refugee camp in Jordan. I was able to meet the person who arranged the visit, who encouraged me to go to Jordan to tell people at the camp that the world had not given up on them. I was 60 years old then and had nothing that would restrain me from going--I had just lost my mother, my grownup son had left the house, and I just finished writing scripts for the major TV drama series. So I decided to go for an experience.

JHP office in Shiba, Minato City Souichi Tanaka, a staff member of the International Volunteer College,who is also an alumnus of the college himself

JHP office in Shiba, Minato City

Souichi Tanaka, a staff member of
the International Volunteer College,
who is also an alumnus of the college himself

Who else was in your group when you visited the refugee camp in Jordan?

A.When I called my son and told him that I was going to Jordan, he said he wanted to go too. I didn't like the idea that anything could happen over there to young people like him. But his friend also decided to go, and eventually we became a group of seven, including myself, my friend who is 10 years younger than I, three young guys and two young ladies. I had already planned then that I would find a way someday to tell about my experiences, including how local people accepted us, with my own words to other people. It was the very beginning of the idea of the International Volunteer College.

Participants carefully drill holes at a Volunteer College onsite study © JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

Participants carefully drill holes at a Volunteer College onsite study
© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

How did your visit to Jordan connect to your next project?

A. The newspaper reported on our activities in Jordan, and some people who read the article contacted me to ask if I would be interested in working together with them. Those were Atsuyuki Sassa, a specialist of crisis management; Ikuo Hirayama, then the president of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music; and Hideaki Nitani, an actor. With these members from the same generation, we organized Japan International Rescue Action Committee (JIRAC). We didn't want the world think Japan only brings in money and never wants to get involved, so we thought we should bring in money and then get involved. But the reality was, we were a group of senior citizens in our sixty's. So, one of our members who was a professor at a university told his students about our group and plan and asked if they might be interested in it. To our delight, they agreed to join the group and started making a plan for a visit during summer break. After a number of discussions that followed, we eventually decided to send a group to help a refugee camp on the Iranian side where Kurdish refugees who had fled the Gulf War were sheltered. It was the summer of 1991.

What were the main activities of the group at the refugee camp in Iran?

Participants of Volunteer College onsite study make a circle before they start their work of the day © JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

Participants of Volunteer College onsite study make a circle before they start their work of the day
© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

A. Kurdish people at the camp had been persecuted in Iraq and fled to Iran. As the war had been ended for a while, they wanted to cross the mountains and go back to their villages. The Iranian government wanted to provide such returning refugees with food and other necessities that would help them for a week to ten days. But they didn't have the money to do so due to the extended war between Iran and Iraq. Our support targeted filling that need. We had about 2.5 million yen as a project fund that had been gathered from different sources. With that money, we bought such items as rice, oil, and detergent, and our student members divided them into packages each of which contained items for a single household. We took the packages in bigger sacks to the camp, and each family picked up a package and carried back to home. I think it became a good experience especially for those student volunteers who had never worked overseas before.

How did the student participants react to the activities at the camp?

A.They told me that the experience made them realize and appreciate that Japan is really a good country. The country is free, rich, peaceful, and safe. Although safety part has become questionable these days, Japan is still a wonderful country. In Iran, women have to cover their hair, the religious police will show up if a couple is chatting on the street, and the entrance of restaurants is separated for men and women. They saw with their own eyes that freedom of expression or freedom of relationship, which are taken for granted in Japan, do not exist in some other countries. These words of appreciation for their own home country, which I heard from the students, assured me that I wanted to continue my volunteer work with young people.

Tell us about the project you organized in the following year at a Cambodian refugee camp.

A.For the project in Iran, we originally planned to send two groups consecutively, but we had to cancel the second group because of my work schedule. The students of the second group were not very happy of course, so I had to think how I could make it up to them. Then, in fall 1991, the 20-year conflict in Cambodia was officially ended with the peace agreement, and a huge project began to help 380,000 refugees from the camp in the Thai border return home. So we decided to send our group to help the project. The trains were used to carry the refugees back to Cambodia, but there were no stations or platforms, so they stopped in the middle of nowhere. Our first job in Cambodia was to help children and old people get off of the trains. We took a group of students and stayed there from July through October in 1992. In the following year, we founded the Cambodian Children's School Construction Organization, through which we began a project of building schools in Cambodia. We have changed the organization's name to JHP and have being expanding activities, including the promotion of art and music education, in addition to building schools. We send a group of volunteers twice a year, for a month for each group. Right now, the August team of this year is in Cambodia, building swing sets for children this time.

A group of volunteers with a swing set they built ©  JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

A group of volunteers with a swing set they built
© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

What do the participants say about their volunteer experiences?

A. I once had a friend's son join the volunteer team, so I asked my friend later what he said about his experience. According to my friend, he said he found lifelong friends during the program. The participants could make mistakes, misunderstand, or trouble others. Some of them feel frustrated by that and often cry. But the members of the team accept each other and find solutions together. You make lifelong friends when you can show your vulnerable side to them. Once they are at work, their school names or educational backgrounds do not matter. It is not easy to find such a group of young people these days.

Performing soran-bushi at a local elementary school Singing as guest performers at a local music contest

Performing soran-bushi at
a local elementary school

Singing as guest performers at
a local music contest

© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

What made you decide to start the International Volunteer College?

A class in session at the Volunteer College
© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

A. You would be surprised to see how poorly college students today are educated in terms of common knowledge. That's not entirely their fault though; they don't know things because they are not taught at school. They would not understand pieces of Japanese history that everyone used to know. Besides providing assistance to Cambodia, JHP has been sending volunteers to Yugoslavia, and after watching their work in both countries, I began thinking they would do a better job if they received a little more education in Japan before they go. The school opened in 2006 and marks its seventh year this year.

What are the most unique characteristics of the International Volunteer College?

A.The College starts its program in September and offers about 70 classes for six months. After that, the students will visit Cambodia for a 3-week onsite study. The best thing about the college is that the students gain knowledge in a classroom and have opportunities to confirm what they have learned in class in the real world. Onsite study is not mandatory, but many students consider going while studying at the college. It is often difficult for those who have jobs to take three weeks off from work, so some of them join only for a week or so. We have more senior students in the class these days. They come in all different job backgrounds and ages. It is a great thing to have those adults and young students studying together in the same classroom.

Members of Chocolate Project team packing chocolates

Onsite study includes a tour to Angkor Wat
© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

Who teaches classes at the College?

At a workshop of the Volunteer College
© JHP Japan Team of Young Human Power

A. We have a wonderful collection of teachers from different fields—a diplomat, journalist, university professor, a representative of a nonprofit organization, and many more. We have lecturers whose names are well known to the public, including journalist Akira Ikegami, writer Kanna Kozu, and former prime minister's wife Kayoko Hosokawa. One of our lecturers and a college professor tells me that he enjoys teaching here because students look straight to him and are focused to listen to the lecture, and always ask him questions after the lecture. We usually have lots to talk about after the class so we often ask our lecturers out for dinner so that we can continue talking.

Lastly, please share one of your most memorable episodes about the Volunteer College.

A. I was looking through the entry sheets of student applicants for the Cambodia volunteer team, and one student says she wanted to go to Cambodia through JHP since she first learned about Cambodia from her teacher at junior high school.Her teacher was one of the Volunteer College graduates who later became a teacher and shared her own experiences in Cambodia with her students. I was so glad to be assured that the seeds we have been sowing are growing and spreading. You are welcome to join the college just by taking one class, so check the list of classes we offer this year and see if you find any lecturers or class topics that might be interesting for you.

Click here for the list of 2012 International Volunteer College class schedule (in Japanese)