TOKYO — Keiko Tani's eyes sparkle when she speaks of how volunteering has enriched her life.
Every day, after her regular job, Ms. Tani goes to the Tokyo Women's Union, a support group. There, she counsels women who are facing the brunt of corporate Japan's current streamlining or who have been sexually harassed or bullied by their bosses. Along with 40 other female volunteers, Tani often works late into the night.
"I don't ... feel a sense of mission to help others," says the slender woman. "I enjoy meeting more people through my volunteering."
"When first coming to our office, [the women] were deeply distressed with their problems. But I can see them recovering their spirit gradually," she says.
What Tani and other members do at the Union typifies a new wave of volunteerism in Japan that began after the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995. Some experts even speculate that Japan may be shaking off the last vestiges of its traditional isolationism and taking on the hard work that comes with being a global economic leader.
But while growing numbers of Japanese are lending a helping hand in local hospitals or distant American slums, their motives differ sharply from the fresh idealism of their foreign peers. For Japanese volunteers, particularly young people, helping others is just a means to the end of meeting people and having enriching life experiences.
The fact that Japan's young people are taking to this movement for good works has taken many observers by surprise. Like America's Generation X, Japan's younger generation has long been viewed as self-centered and apathetic.
Consider Hiromi Yahagi, a welfare major at Urawa Women's College in suburban Tokyo. For the past year, she has been volunteering at a school for handicapped children.
"I had never related to any disabled people before," says Ms. Yahagi with a smile as she pushes a student's wheelchair through the hall. "But my volunteer work has made the distance between us much shorter."
The existence of volunteers, says school director Hiroshi Yamamoto, is also a boon to the institution. "Having different background and experiences, volunteers bring new ideas, new activities into our school, and provide different perspectives for us."
And the social interaction that young people like Ms. Yahagi get by volunteering also helps eliminate their prejudices against non-Japanese minorities, the handicapped, and aged people.
Because Japan has such a homogenous population, disadvantaged groups are are often seen as "different" and are targets of discrimination.
Takeshi Miyazaki's first encountered volunteerism when he was a student at the University of Chicago. He tutored children in an impoverished minority community near the prestigious university. It was during this period, Mr. Miyazaki says, that he was shocked into awareness of the extreme circumstances of the children. It made him more aware of issues faced by the poor and minority groups. "Unless you relate to them," Miyazaki says, "you would be still unaware of their existence."
He adds that his volunteering stint in Chicago made him aware of the volunteer possibilities in Japan. Since his return, he says, he has become "very active."
"Many young people these days are seeking to find out who they are," says Katsutoshi Enokida, professor of international exchange at Aichi Shukutoku University in Aichi, Japan. "While interacting with others and contacting other cultures through their volunteer work, Japanese young people are able to develop human relations and have a sense of their own identity."
A spokeswoman for Japan's National Welfare Council says that while the exact figure of Japanese volunteers is unavailable, the number of volunteers they surveyed in 1995 increased from 4.1 million in 1991 to 5.3 million. Many experts, however, say the actual number is "much larger" since small volunteer groups have sprung up all over the country.
In a survey conducted by the council, the percentage of Japanese who wanted to volunteer doubled from 40 percent in 1994, to more than 80 percent in 1995.
The number of nongovernmental organizations has also grown from 186 in 1991 to 351 in 1995, says the Japanese NGO Center for International Cooperation in Tokyo. These groups have dispatched young volunteers everywhere, from Japan's rural villages to the remotest corners of the globe.
Meanwhile, these volunteer and citizens' groups received a boost in early June when the Diet, the lower house of parliament, passed a bill that gave them corporate status and recognized them as official nonprofit organizations.
BUT it was in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake of January 1995, in which 6,500 people lost their lives, that Japanese learned more about volunteering, says Professor Enokida.
While the Japanese government was sharply criticized for its slow response and its bumbling relief efforts after the major disaster, many impromptu groups of volunteers pitched in and showcased the power of citizen action.
Seeing such a stark contrast in the emergency situation, "Japanese people learned the limit of what the government can do," Enokida says. "That raised citizens' awareness. "
Enokida, who was a visiting professor at the Points of Lights Foundation in Washington, says he sends some of his students to homeless shelters in Washington, where they can volunteer during a summer vacation.
Through the volunteering program, "College students are able to experience international exchange at a citizens' level," he says. "Through their volunteer work, they can develop human relations and relations with their community."
"Japanese media and politicians describe the year of 1995, when the major earthquake hit Kobe and its surrounding areas, as the first year of Japan's volunteerism," Enokida adds. "That's not true.
"Japanese young people started to go overseas to volunteer in the late 1970s, when Communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos caused hundreds of thousands ... [to] flee their country. And more went to Africa in the mid-1980s, responding to massive starvation in Africa."