Moms try to fill service-ethic void

It's not the kind of learning that comes from sitting at a desk in a classroom. But for a determined band of Japanese mothers, character education is just as important. And the way to achieve it is not to rely on schools, but to engage children in volunteering.

In a country with little tradition of volunteering, Motherland Academy International in Tokyo is creating channels for parents and children alike to roll up their sleeves and help needy families around the world. Its founders believe this is one way to counteract the materialism and competitiveness they see dominating Japanese youth culture.

"While studying in school, children also learn to kick others down in order to survive in fierce competitions," says Fumiko Murakami, president of Motherland and one of the five mothers who started the group in 1982.

"That's why they become more self-centered and less thoughtful for others."

When her child started elementary school 18 years ago, Ms. Murakami and her friends noticed their children were judged only by test scores and athletic activities, and that although they excelled by those measures, the children were developing a me-first attitude.

Rather than point their fingers at teachers, they began to reexamine their own child-rearing practices. Soon they took advantage of an opportunity to volunteer in the neighborhood helping Vietnamese refugees adjust to Japan. Then they took another step, forming their own group to send relief supplies to Africa.

For some of the mothers, change came swiftly in their own lifestyles, reflecting a values shift they hoped to pass down to their children.

Chiiko Onodera, for example, used to wear a fur coat and expensive jewelry and drive a Mercedes. Soon after getting involved in Motherland Academy, she switched to jeans and T-shirts. She also sold the luxury car and used the money to buy forklifts for the group.

Ms. Onodera once let her daughter miss some school and travel with her to Africa to distribute the donations. "My daughter was astonished to see enormous gaps in living conditions exist between Japan and such places," she says. "The trip has made her become much more appreciative of what she has. She took everything for granted before...."

Motherland Academy occupies a tiny office without air conditioning in a nook of Tokyo Port. It does not have big corporate sponsors and high-tech equipment. But it has a growing cadre of enthusiastic members (numbering nearly 400) across the country. Last year, 140 tons of rice and more than 1,000 tons of other relief supplies were sent to Russia, North Korea, and a variety of countries in Africa. Members also make visits to the Sahara Desert to help build wells.

Although Motherland members insist the group has no political or religious affiliation, at times they are monitored by government officials and police. Some people oppose them because they send supplies to communist North Korea.

But the value of giving doesn't have political boundaries, these mothers insist. They point out that after Japan's defeat in World War II, relief supplies poured in from around the world. "I used to be lining up all day for distributed food," Murakami says. "I know how hard it is when you cannot get access to food, because we went through it. I used to dream of steamy white rice."

But they are concerned that thoughtfulness for others is not taught in the schools, and that as a result, kids tend to think more about appearances than character. Many young people, for instance, covet brand-name handbags and clothes, and don't mind spending hundreds of dollars on luxury items.

"Young people's behavior as such is a byproduct of Japan's distorted capitalism that was developed rapidly after World War II without ethics and morals," says Katsushi Kuronuma, who has written several books on Japanese youths. "They often flatly say, 'After all, it's money that is important in this world.' "

Many parents also think they can "buy" education, adds Nobuo Maehara, a teacher in Tokyo. "They often say, 'All we can do for our child's education is to pay tuition.' "

Parents often seem at a loss as to how to deal with problems of today's youths, including bullying, violence, and the refusal to go to school because of academic or social pressures. But Motherland members find that as they throw themselves into the work of caring for others, their children are drawn into it as well.

"As the Japanese saying goes, children are brought up while seeing their parents," says Katsutoshi Enokida, a professor of international exchange at Shukutoku University in Aichi. "Involving children in volunteer work will be very important in Japan from now on" as social alienation becomes more of an issue.

"Volunteering ... makes children care about issues and broaden their world, so they have a choice of what they will do in the future," Mr. Enokida adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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