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ICYE JAPAN - International Cultural Youth Exchange Japan Committee Experience Being an International Volunteer and Change Your Life!

Ms. Ayako Yamada, Director of the Secretariat, shown holding a name plate created by a returnee to Japan.  On the wall behind is a map with ICYE member nations indicated, and a certificate from the Secretary-General of the United Nations that recognizes the organization as an “International Messenger of Peace.

Ms. Ayako Yamada, Director of the Secretariat, shown holding a name plate created by a returnee to Japan. On the wall behind is a map with ICYE member nations indicated, and a certificate from the Secretary-General of the United Nations that recognizes the organization as an "International Messenger of Peace.

This month's Close Up introduces ICYE JAPAN - International Cultural Youth Exchange Japan Committee, which is registered as a specified non-profit organization. With its international headquarters in Berlin, the International Cultural Youth Exchange Federation (ICYE Federation) is a non-profit organization (NPO) that has engaged in citizen-level international exchanges for more than 60 years. Possessing a network of some 40 countries stretched across Europe, continental America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania; the ICYE Federation engages in the dispatch and acceptance of volunteers among the ICYE committees of the different member countries. In this country, the track record of activity of ICYE JAPAN which represents the Japan Committee stretches back more than 50 years. On this occasion, we spoke to Ayako Yamada, who in addition to currently being the Director of the ICYE JAPAN Secretariat, has past participation experience in a year-long ICYE volunteer program in Germany.

Q.Tell us the background that led to the establishment of ICYE.

A.What led to the start of ICYE was that, post-World War II; there were exchanges of youth volunteers between the United States and Germany, two countries that had been enemy combatants during that conflict. What started these activities was, "the insufficient understanding between these countries that had given birth to the tragedy of war. Thus, there existed a desire to create an opportunity to learn more about each other at a grassroots level." Initially, exchanges were undertaken only between these two countries. However, the number of countries in agreement with such sentiments grew over time. These days the ICYE Federation network stretches far and wide to encompass some 40 countries around the world.

A noticeboard in front of the ICYE JAPAN offices which prominently displays the catchphrase: "Become Local to the Marrow of Your Bones!"   A photo of the ICYE JAPAN staff at work. In 2012, the organization dispatched some 16 long-term and 81 short-term international volunteers.

A noticeboard in front of the ICYE JAPAN offices which prominently displays the catchphrase: "Become Local to the Marrow of Your Bones!"

 

A photo of the ICYE JAPAN staff at work. In 2012, the organization dispatched some 16 long-term and 81 short-term international volunteers.

Q.What is the mission of ICYE?

A.It might sound somewhat melodramatic, but our ultimate aim is "world peace." If people better understand one another, conflict might disappear from the world. For example, if you had an opportunity to visit Ecuador, if a conflict were to break out there at some time in the future, you would worry about your local acquaintances, and maybe question "if so and so was alright." By increasing the number of acquaintances at a grass-roots level via friendships and host families, etc., in different countries; we want to achieve world peace by developing relationships whereby all parties are considerate of one another.

ICYE JAPAN introductory pamphlet (L) and newsletter (R). In the newsletter that is published three times annually, there is extensive coverage of the opinions of people who have been dispatched by ICYE JAPAN.
© ICYE JAPAN

ICYE JAPAN introductory pamphlet (L) and newsletter (R).  In the newsletter that is published three times annually, there is extensive coverage of the opinions of people who have been dispatched by ICYE JAPAN. © ICYE JAPAN

Q.Please tell us about the ICYE international volunteer program.

A.We have a long-term volunteer program lasting six months to one year, and a short-term program lasting two weeks to four months. Concerning the long-term program, basically speaking, we dispatch a lone Japanese volunteer to a single country. Placed in an environment where the volunteer is completely surrounded by non-Japanese people, they have the opportunity to immerse themselves completely in local life. Furthermore, in addition to friendships formed with members of the local population, another major facet of the long-term program is an opportunity to make friends with volunteers dispatched by other ICYE Federation countries. Speaking personally, I had the opportunity to participate in a long-term program in Germany. Participating in that program also gave me an opportunity to make friends with people from Moldova and Indonesia, etc. Although the wide variety of volunteer destinations include elementary schools and orphanages, facilities for the disabled, and social rehabilitation facilities for drug addicts, etc., lots of volunteers also get involved in jobs dealing with children and social-welfare issues.
Concerning the short-term volunteer program, it doesn't have the same restrictions regarding the number of people who can be dispatched to a single country. However, there is no difference in that this program is also designed to be local and community-based. In that the short-term program is relatively brief, a more casual frame of mind is possible when participating.

Ms. Yamada (C) volunteered as a teaching assistant at a German elementary school.  On weekends and over long holiday periods, she helped run vacation camps for the disabled. © ICYE JAPAN

Ms. Yamada (C) volunteered as a teaching assistant at a German elementary school. On weekends and over long holiday periods, she helped run vacation camps for the disabled.
© ICYE JAPAN

Q.What types of people participate in these programs?

A.Just over half of the participants in our long-term program are students. There are also many salaried employees with ages up to their 30s. Relatively speaking, women are in the majority. Concerning trends, we are seeing more salaried women of around 30 years old, these people see the program as "a last chance!" to participate in something like this. Furthermore, the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden represent popular destinations.
Almost all participants in the short-term program are students, with many deciding to use their spring and summer holidays as an opportunity to travel overseas. Also, we have salaried employees making use of their holidays to participate in the program, particularly those holidays occurring at the end/start of year, etc. Broadly speaking, many are attracted by the words, "overseas" and "volunteer." They are of the mindset that, "I will participate starting with what I am able to offer." Moreover, among our participants are those for whom their participation means a first time traveling overseas. We have even had those whose first time experiences overseas were as two-week volunteers in Kenya! I am very much impressed with the bravery of people who are willing to take up such challenges.

Mr. Shu Nakajima (L) who worked as a long-term volunteer at a facility for the disabled in the United Kingdom.
When living in the UK, he was surprised by the number of disabled people he saw in town, it seemed facilities for the disabled were rather widespread.
© ICYE JAPAN

Mr. Shu Nakajima (L) who worked as a long-term volunteer at a facility for the disabled in the United Kingdom. When living in the UK, he was surprised by the number of disabled people he saw in town, it seemed facilities for the disabled were rather widespread. © ICYE JAPAN

Q.Are there applications for volunteer participation coming from older generations as well?

A.Yes, we have seen an increase in such inquiries. Of course, many don't progress to the point of actual participation; however, among our group of candidates always waiting to depart overseas, invariably there is one in their 40s or 50s. Currently, we have a gentleman who is 73 years old waiting to go to Uganda; and another social worker in his 40s who has decided to visit Denmark due to "an interest in Scandinavian social welfare." We even have a mother who has decided to leave her children in the care of her husband in order to visit Uganda during the end/start of year holidays this year. The fervor and energy of such candidates is such that it surprises us as well.

Q.Is language ability included in the application conditions for participation in your programs?

A.No, we don't have restrictions that require people speak English or the local language of their desired destination. However, in the absence of such restrictions, participation is perhaps more oriented to those who are determined. In communicating with others, it is acceptable to ask that they "write it down" or "please speak more slowly." Although it might be difficult for people who are shy, we welcome applications from anybody "who wishes to take up a challenge in order to change facets of their personality."

In living there for 10 months, Ms. Ayumi Komoda (C) worked to support Kenyan orphans.  In coming face-to-face with a culture where women totally depend on men, she appreciated the prevalence of orphans due to the issues of an ongoing AIDS epidemic and the incidence of teenage pregnancy. © ICYE JAPAN

In living there for 10 months, Ms. Ayumi Komoda (C) worked to support Kenyan orphans. In coming face-to-face with a culture where women totally depend on men, she appreciated the prevalence of orphans due to the issues of an ongoing AIDS epidemic and the incidence of teenage pregnancy.
© ICYE JAPAN

Q.It seems your study programs for corporate volunteers are also very popular.

A.As part of corporate training, we have young salaried employees who have been with their companies for up to approximately 10 years come and participate in ICYE short-term programs. I must admit that a lot of manufacturers are currently utilizing these programs. Although not possible to master local languages in just two weeks etc., it is good if participants can return with experiences that result in ideas being germinated within them. For example, by somebody who manufactures desks going to Kenya and living locally, it becomes possible to directly see how such products are being used by Kenyans. I feel there are a number of opportunities by which such raw intelligence can translate into business. Of course, what participants choose to observe is up to them individually, however, we have received lots of feedback along the lines of; "by participating I came to realize that I was largely ignorant of both my own identity, and of the people of other countries." There are also people "who remember living in India due to the taste sensation they experience when eating spicy food." It is positive if such discoveries and recollections are retained in some form by people, and are subsequently able to be linked to future matters in some way by them.

Q.Approximately how many foreign volunteers do you have visiting Japan?

A.Each year, we accept perhaps seven or eight foreign volunteers to our Japanese volunteer program. Most of them are students, and nationalities represented include Danes, Swiss, Germans, British, Finnish, Irish and Costa Rican, etc. They volunteer on farms, at free schools, and at nursing care facilities for the elderly, etc. Many like Japan and want to have an opportunity to live here. The Japanese language skills of some of them are initially limited to simple introductions; however, through their work they become rather fluent. I was even quite shocked by the fact that some of them pick up regional Japanese dialects such as Hiroshima ben by living in Japan for periods as little as six months.

Ann from Denmark (extreme left) is in Hokkaido and works as a member of a communal school. She reports that, "I am not merely learning about Japan. Rather, I feel that by coming into contact with a wide range of values held by different people, I realized there are no absolute truths."
© ICYE JAPAN

Ann from Denmark (extreme left) is in Hokkaido and works as a member of a communal school.  She reports that, "I am not merely learning about Japan.  Rather, I feel that by coming into contact with a wide range of values held by different people, I realized there are no absolute truths." © ICYE JAPAN

Q.And you are also involved in activities that promote taking a gap year.

A.The gap year conceptualization has arrived in Japan, and we are participating in an organization called the "Gap Year Platform" which is considering how such a system might be practically utilized. In June of this year, in conjunction with Never-Ending International Work Camps Exchange (NICE), we held an event called "The Gap Year Festival." In Japan, there remains a strong philosophical undercurrent that students "graduating from university in four years is the obvious choice, and staying back a year is unacceptable." However, we would like to convey to students the idea that it is "not necessary to organize things so precisely!" Speaking truthfully, it would be good if tie-ups could be realized between universities and NPO/NGO like us, organizations involved in the dispatch of international volunteers, but, such ideas appear rather difficult to achieve. However, there are universities who have tied-up with us and offer credit for participation in ICYE programs. Nevertheless, such developments are currently limited in scope to short-term overseas programs, or offering assistance to our program that sees overseas volunteers come to Japan.

Q.Concerning recent student attitudes, are they receptive to the idea of long-term volunteer activities overseas?

A.There is some polarization among current students. Some remain very eager to take up volunteer activities even if it means their graduation will be set back a year. The outlook of others is introspective in the extreme. Such students tend to think only in terms of negatives such as "uneasiness, risk avoidance of the unknown, danger, and feelings of helplessness" when it comes to volunteer work. Moreover, there are also many students being pulled in any number of directions concerning volunteer work due to a belief it might help them in employment searches. We often hear questions such as, "will volunteering overseas help me find a job"? My thoughts on this are, "you may find something as result of volunteering overseas; however, how you use this something and link it to success in finding employment is very much a matter for the individual."

Ms. Akiko Kurosawa who after quitting her old job volunteered at a kindergarten in Costa Rica called “Cen Cinai” for a year. After returning to Japan and finding a new job, she said, “If you were to ask me if ‘volunteering overseas was valuable in my subsequent employment search for a career change,’ I would have to say that it is not that clear-cut. Rather, it is very much dependent on the individual.” © ICYE JAPAN

Ms. Akiko Kurosawa who after quitting her old job volunteered at a kindergarten in Costa Rica called "Cen Cinai" for a year.
After returning to Japan and finding a new job, she said, "If you were to ask me if 'volunteering overseas was valuable in my subsequent employment search for a career change,' I would have to say that it is not that clear-cut. Rather, it is very much dependent on the individual."
© ICYE JAPAN

Q.Are there a lot of people who volunteer overseas who later believe they have gained something from the experience?

A.I often hear that people have "developed a sense of independence and an ability to act." Although it might be a very small matter, concerning something simple such as getting on and off a single bus, there are countries in which there is no system as in Japan whereby buses automatically stop at bus stops to allow passengers to get on and off. Thus, unless you clearly say, "I want to get on" or "I want to get off" in such countries, you can't achieve even simple tasks. As such, in going overseas, there are also lots of comments from people who feel they have "rediscovered" Japan. In both a positive and negative sense, volunteering overseas gives the individual an opportunity to look at how they view matters using "Japan" as a basis.

Q.Please send the message to those people who might be interested in ICYE programs.

Ms. Yamada, the Director of the Secretariat feels, “the values of the individual will definitely change once they have been overseas.”

Ms. Yamada, the Director of the Secretariat feels, "the values of the individual will definitely change once they have been overseas."

A.If somebody is in two minds as to whether or not they should participate in a program, I would recommend that they definitely go ahead and do it! Concerning ICYE programs, anyone can participate in them as long as they have the courage to take up the challenge. I feel our programs offer an experience that cannot be obtained anywhere else. If I think of those who have returned to Japan after participation, there is a greater flexibility in the way in which they work, and their views about life. I know some people are worried about "not becoming a salaried employee," or volunteering becoming "impossible once being employed," however, on returning to Japan after their participation, even the outlook of such people will change. Indeed, I don't know anyone who has regretted their participation afterwards! For people in want of the courage to take that first step, please come and visit us at the ICYE Secretariat! We are more than willing to give you a friendly push at any time!