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Volunteerism in America and Japan
Two Different Cultures

Impressions on American volunteerism by a Japanese journalist and college professor who works to promote volunteerism in Japan:

The United States is the most advanced country in philanthropy, in terms of percentage of income (GDP) given to charities and average number of hours given for volunteering. In the USA, many non-profit organizations have an important role. In Japan, as well as in most European countries, these functions are more often filled by local and national governments.

According to a 1999 survey by Independent Sector, the percentage of volunteers in America is the largest of any country, almost 56%. The average hours volunteered per week by an individual is 3.5 hours. This is down from 4.2% in 1995, but still exceptional.

According to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel, donations to charity reached 2.1% of the GDP in 1999. This is also exceptional. The United States is greatly helped by its volunteers and donors.

Why is it so? There are various reasons.

First, the desire to work together and help others comes from the foundation of the country. In the United States, the notion of "the people" preceded that of "the government" in its creation.  The founders were disappointed with their former countries and did not want to have a powerful government. They wanted to build their communities for themselves. Also, the United States is a country of immigrants seeking to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

Americans still have a strong sense of community. According to a survey*, those who think the government should take basic responsibility to help needy people make up
 40% and those who think private sectors such as companies and charitable organizations should hold the primary responsibility of helping the needy are 31%. If the Japanese people were asked the same questions, I believe that most would answer that the government should take charge. Japan has had a long tradition of putting the government above the people.

*By Newsweek and NBC News, 1996

Second, American volunteerism also comes from religion. Churches and synagogues have always been big sources of volunteers and still are. Congregates often say they gain more than they give by volunteering. Even when Americans volunteer without any relationship to religion, they realize volunteering offers various skills, friends, experiences, satisfaction and fun.

In Japan, volunteerism is seen more in terms of service and sacrifice. This has been so for a long time and is just beginning to change. Japanese people are beginning to realize that volunteering is a give-and-take action.

Third, American volunteerism also comes as a result of requests from large numbers of people and organizations. American society has faced many problems dealing with racial issues and an increasing immigrant population. In Japan, families and neighbors have handled problems that arise. This is changing - these traditional ties are beginning to break down and Japan is now a rapidly aging society, so volunteering draws attention.

Finally, the United States is a country of volunteers because federal, state and local governments give substantial financial aid to non-profit organizations. Many organizations working with the homeless and other poverty-related issues receive direct support from government agencies. Most organizations have IRS 501(c)(3) status -- individual donors can deduct donations from taxable income. In Japan, it was not until 1998 that most of the volunteer organizations gained official legal status, and the tax issue is still being debated.

For the above reasons, there are many volunteer groups and non-profit organizations in the United States. Many of them are very big and have full-time staff, which is not the case in most Japanese organizations. In the United States, non-profit organizations often cooperate, sharing volunteers and information. Schools and companies have a number of volunteer programs they are linked to. As for donations, the United Way collects money by payroll deduction from corporate employees, and donors can designate the field or agency they want their gift to support.

Through volunteering and donations, individuals can express their will on what kind of society they want and what issues they think are crucial. In the matter of volunteerism, Japan still has much to learn from the United States about how to promote volunteerism.

by Motoko Imai, lecturer at Tokiwa University in Japan and Minds volunteer

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