Japan teens let no good deed go unnoticed

A good deed might be its own reward, but Ryuichi Okita believes an incentive never hurts. His approach has made altruism the hottest new trend among young Japanese.

Mr. Okita, not long out of high school himself, is the inventor of "Heaven's Passport." The booklet declares the holder's wish will come true after doing 100 good deeds. Owners affix a photo to the passport and inscribe their name and a wish. For every kind act, they add a sticker to its pages.

The day-glo booklets have struck a chord in Japan, and not just among teens.

Adults, concerned about rising delinquency and youth violence, have been searching for ways to boost morals. They've welcomed the passport, which partly echoes ancient Asian beliefs.

Experts warn the booklet's reward-based approach to goodness might send a mixed message. But Okita argues it at least gives kids a start.

"I wanted a game that allows [teens] to learn what morals really mean in action," says Okita. "A lot of adults say young people lack ethics, but nothing adults have done so far has worked."

A grandparent might describe Okita, a designer based in rural southern Japan, as full of beans. He has an untamed mop of salmon-colored hair and favors funky wraparound glasses and punk-rock clothing.

Inspired by another's selflessness

He's also a fan of David Copperfield, who provided initial inspiration for the passport when Okita heard about the American magician's visits with the disabled. In time, Okita came to believe that good deeds are rewarded by kindness from others, and wanted to create something based on that idea.

"If you look at the market, there are a lot of products that are a bad influence on teenagers," says Okita. "I wondered where I could find a fashion-related product that made people feel good about themselves."

He set about creating one, then selling it on the weekends. An art-school contact helped find a Tokyo distributor, and Heaven's Passport launched late last year. To date, more than 100,000 people have bought one, says sales director Yasuko Sakamaki. Mainstream newspapers and teen magazines like Seventeen have pegged it as the hot summer product.

The ecstatic press reaction might be partly due to Japanese anxiety about disaffected youths. Japan has not experienced the mass violence of a Littleton, Colo., or a Conyers, Ga. But minors have committed high-profile violent crimes and juvenile crime has risen sharply in the last few years, a surge that experts attribute to the pressure cooker of Japan's school system and the absence from home of hard-working fathers.

Some critics, including those in his target audience, have questioned whether Okita's game can really teach kids to be more thoughtful and socially engaged.

"I don't think bad kids would buy [Heaven's Passport] in the first place," says Mayumi Taniguchi, a second-year high school student browsing in a Body Shop after school. "I'm not buying one because I think it's meaningless. If you're doing something good, I don't think you should expect something in return."

But for others, the passport is paying dividends beyond the hoped-for reward of a wish come true. "When I gave my seat up in the train the other day, the woman said 'thank you,' and that made me feel good," says Tokyo high school student Mika Yui, who also earns stickers by putting away her futon each morning instead of leaving it for her mother. Mika is 94 stickers away from her wish of becoming a famous hip-hop dancer, but she plans on staying the course.

She says the passport makes doing good things easier, which is significant in Japan, where altruism and volunteerism aren't deeply rooted cultural values.

Beyond minding your own business

Traditionally, society has been divided into those within the circle of family and acquaintances, and those outside. To do an unsolicited favor for someone outside the circle was to burden them with an obligation to you - an imposition and rudeness.

Society, especially in urban Japan, has changed a great deal, but those instincts are still strong. "Sometimes you worry that the other person doesn't want to be helped," explains Mika. "That makes me feel awkward."

This deeply imbued social constraint may also be a reason for the passport's popularity, as it frees people to be kind, suggests Daizaburo Hashizume, a sociologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

He also suggests that the passport offers students a psychological break from school, with its fierce academic pressures, threat of bullying, and "hidden hostility everywhere."

"This passport helps them escape to another world that has a totally different value system," Mr. Hashizume says. It's not about the common good as everything in school is, it's not necessary to be objective, or have a result. And it allows them to be kind in their own way."

Link to Confucius

The fact that the passport echoes ancient Confucian practices can only help.

Japan is not a strictly Confucian country, but the Chinese value system influences Japanese culture. In Confucian belief, there is a similar calculating of good deeds by which ordinary people improve their prospects in life after death.

"It's like a coupon or mileage system," says Hashizume. "The more you do something good, the more you'll get in the future."

Inventor Okita knows that critics question whether the quid-pro-quo approach to good deeds sends kids the right message. But he emphasizes that people have to begin somewhere. "I wanted to tell the public that being nice and being good is cool," he says. "I don't know if a game itself is an effective way to encourage people to be good, but it certainly makes things much more fun."

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