TOKYO — It is midmorning in central Tokyo, a beautiful clear day in early June. A cab driver pulls over to clear some garbage bags off the street so they dont pose a danger to traffic.
A woman walking her dog sees him and comes over to help. They exchange a few words. She is impressed by his consideration of others, so she sends a short note of thanks to his company.
The company asks her to nominate him for a certificate of appreciation handed out by a Japanese organization interested in such things. When the driver hears about his award from the Small Kindness Movement, he is pleased but finds it a little bit embarrassing. Shifting the garbage bags really wasnt a big deal at all, he says.
Maybe so. But the woman, a well-traveled flight attendant and mother of two, named Yoko Suzuki, believes otherwise. If every person would act like him, she says of the driver, Akira Kamata, this society would become a much better place to live.
Ms. Suzukis statement sums up the philosophy of the Small Kindness Movement, which was founded to encourage Japanese to provide a warm welcome during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. More than three decades later, this group is going global, linking up with like-minded organizations in other countries. They envision a nonreligious, nonpolitical world kindness movement that they expect to inaugurate in November a mobilization based on the idea that doing simple, spontaneous things for others can have profound consequences.
It turns out, in this world of rising economic angst and indiscretion in high places, amid all the talk of lost values and broken societies, that some people are intent on practicing an almost subversive sort of decency.
Being nice for the sake of being nice is easier in some places than in others. In Japan, for instance, kindness promoters must work around cultural obstacles that dissuade people from doing favors for people they dont know. But Will Glennon, chairman of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation in Berkeley, Calif., says Americans are eager to know more about how to be nicer to others. I feel like were in a booming growth market and were highly undercapitalized, he says of the foundation.
Japans Small Kindness Movement got its start during a graduation day speech at the University of Tokyo. Seiji Kaya, then president of the university, told his audience to be brave in practicing small kindnesses, thereby creating a wave of kindness that will someday wash over all of Japanese society.
Funded by the government, corporations, and philanthropic groups, the movement now employs 23 people and claims to have handed out more than 3 million awards during its nearly 35 years in existence. It has more than 400,000 active members, who pay an annual fee (between $15 and $75, depending on their means) to support the movement.
The US version doesnt have such an establishment pedigree. Berkeley writer and social activist Anne Herbert penned the phrase Practice random kindness and acts of senseless beauty back in 1982. A decade later, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist wrote about the maxim and its author, and a short time after that, Mr. Glennon and some colleagues had an idea for an interesting party: Ask the guests to speak about some episode of kindness in their lives. Glennon, who along with a partner runs a small publishing house called Conari Press, says it was a good party. The transcript of what was said that evening was even better, and after a little editorial polishing, it became a 160-page paperback called Random Acts of Kindness. In five years, it has sold nearly 1 million copies. Now, volunteers in Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Italy, and Sweden have started their own groups to promote random kindness. Other organizations in Singapore and South Korea ones not so directly influenced by the book are also promoting decency and courtesy.
So what is a random act of kindness, or as the Japanese would have it, a small kindness? It depends on person and place.
Colleen Ring, a schoolteacher in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, says she encourages people to be open to the opportunities that are going to present themselves throughout the day and to act without any hope of reward or acknowledgment.
Margery Bruce, a kindness promoter in Edinburgh, Scotland, says its an if-you-see-a-blind-person-waiting-to-cross-the-road type of thing, if you like.
Glennon adds a bit of mischief to his kindness. He once told an interviewer that a movie theater is an excellent place for a random act of kindness. Instead of eating that whole box of candy yourself, he suggested, why not pass the box down the row?
Japans Small Kindness Movement has promoted anti-litter campaigns, offered scholarships, sponsored essay competitions, and even encouraged people to grow a particular flower. Its activities seem more structured and institutionalized than efforts in other countries, but its organizers say the goal is to get people to do the right thing when the need arises, and even when it doesnt.
The idea of a small kindness, says Wataru Mori, the movements chairman and a former president of the University of Tokyo, is just a symbol of peoples good intentions or good will of their humanity. The work of the movement is primarily to remind people to act on these inclinations, something the Japanese are sometimes reluctant to do because they may not want to make the other person feel overly indebted.
Japan is full of ritualized kindness expressions of courtesy and politeness abound. But being spontaneously kind requires overcoming some ingrained ways of behaving, says Yukiko Yamahashi, a jolly and enthusiastic woman who is the movements deputy secretary general.
In the West, says Ms. Bruce, a longtime social service worker in her native Scotland, the challenge is the feeling of suspicion in some people. If you are overly effusive with something, people say, Hold on a minute, what do you want from me?
One source of mistrust is the worry that a religious proselytizer is lurking behind the guise of a kind person. Mori and Glennon both distance their efforts from any religious affiliation. But at the same time, says Ms. Ring, the Canadian schoolteacher, we also believe that kindness is the basis of all major world religions. We see it as pretty universal in its spirituality.
She says the hectic pace of life poses the greatest obstacle. Its not that people arent kind, thoughtful, or well-intentioned. Theyre just very busy.
* Readers may learn more about the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation by calling 800-685-9595 or visiting: www.rakfoundation.org