Japanese Volunteerism, Harry Potter’s Nimbus, Sushi & Beer: No escaping the Men in Black for a most reluctant volunteer. Choice or obligation, those leaves aren’t going to sweep themselves!
- Ageing Population + “Needs Must” = Growing DIY Culture in Japan
- Men in Black: The “Arm-Twisting” Begins
- From Leaf-Raking Hates to Helping Hearts: A Worthy Journey
Volunteering: Is It Really a Choice or an Obligation?
I’ll start by apologising for the slightly oblique title to this blog post: No Quidditch for Shrine Volunteers: It’s a Houki – Not a Nimbus! I promise if you’ll indulge me a little all will eventually become clear. Trust me, it’s only in Japan that you’ll find a proper connection between the Harry Potter reference in the title and volunteering to tidy the grounds at our local shrine.
My basic thought is that being forced or guilted into volunteering is opposite to the essence of volunteerism! Surely, it’s about freely giving of our time and skills for the altruistic benefit of others, right? By the end of this blog post, I hope we’ll all see things more clearly.
Despite the “No Quidditch” rule, the temptation to fly around the local shrine precinct on a vintage Nimbus was just irresistible. The magic of zipping through the fresh November air, working through a series of Quidditch manoeuvres was intoxicating!
Alright then. There wasn’t any actual flying through the air, but the imagination of it was sublime. I may or may not have briefly mounted the vintage Nimbus during my imaginings. I’m not admitting to anything! If you have absolutely no idea about what I’ve written to this point, you’re either still too young, or were never interested in the Harry Potter stories.
Let me take a few steps back to put you in the picture. At the time of writing, we are living and working in Japan. It’s November, a little chilly, but clear and sunny. Autumn – the time of year when you see the most vibrant colours as the leaves change and/or fall away. It’s magnificent!
Ageing Population + “Needs Must” = Growing DIY Culture in Japan
Japan’s much-talked-about aging population is exemplified around where we live. It’s not unusual to see groups of middle-aged to elderly men and women pulling weeds along the side of the street, tidying common areas and so on.
We were warmly welcomed into the cluster of homes where ours is situated, and everyone is very friendly. People say hello and stop for a chat. It’s nice. Then there’s the weekly “community news” folder that is left in our letterbox. Very helpful. That is inevitably followed by a small notebook that needs to be signed after we’ve completed our turn of tidying and washing down the local garbage pick-up point.
Initially, I objected to having to wake up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to go pull weeds by the side of the street. After all, I’m a night person, not one of those demon-possessed humans that is always hammer-n-tongs from the moment they open their eyes in the morning! I was determined not to involve myself.
I decided to come up with some excuse as to why I would be unable to participate. “This is the reason I pay taxes! It’s the City’s responsibility.”
My internal monologue continued with various justifications as to why I would be far too busy working to be able to join their chain gang. There was the constant business travel and a plethora of work commitments, various medical ailments…
As it’s turned out, I have – so far – managed to dodge the let’s weed the street edges enthusiasts. However, things were about to get a whole lot more real.
Men in Black: The “Arm-Twisting” Begins
Soon after our return to live in Japan, two men in black – not the alien-fighting kind, mind you – paid me a visit. In a split-second decision, I had to choose between fluently speaking Japanese or not speaking it at all. Between you and me, there are times when not speaking the language has its perks. The two gentlemen, it turns out, were from the local shrine committee – who were seeking my participation as a volunteer. I was very reticent, and as they were speaking, my mind went into overdrive, thinking of ways to avoid this impending involuntary conscription to a cabal I wanted nothing to do with.
“Gentlemen, I really am very sorry. My work commitments, business travel… Oh! and I’m from the Christian tradition, so…”
My faith beliefs were apparently quite acceptable to the god that inhabits our neighbourhood shrine. “All-comers are most welcome!” they enthused. As for my work schedule, there was “not really much to do, apart from attending a few meetings” and to appear with my epic beard at a few events organized by the shrine committee. I was ensnared.
To protest any further would have made me come across as extremely rude. I wondered how long I would be required to participate in this drain on my personal time!
“You will take your place on the committee for a period of two years. But don’t worry, you don’t start your term for another two years yet.”
Wow, these guys are organized. I was to take over from my currently serving next-door neighbour when he completed his term on the committee in two years’ time.
No Way Out: New Harvest Festival Clean-Up
My two-year stint began in November, two-years hence, and I can tell you that there’s far more to this caper than originally advertised!
The first event on the calendar: The New Harvest Festival. In preparation for the ceremony, the committee had the onerous task of sweeping up, collecting, and dumping the massive blanket of leaves that covered the grounds around the shrine. So they hand the senior committee member the fancy blower vac. Hold on! I had my eye on that! Talk about special treatment. The rest of us got to play with what I immediately recognized as vintage Nimbuses!
The Japanese houki (broom) looks so much like the flying broomsticks featured in the Harry Potter stories!
I just couldn’t restrain myself from unleashing the Aussie larrikin in me. Immediately fascinated, I spared no time getting down to business, mucking around with it in every possible way. That’s right. Exactly as you might be imagining right now!
But then, reality hit me. The shrine grounds were massive, and this was our inaugural leaf-cleaning mission for the Autumn season. Although the wind mostly behaved, a few rogue gusts decided to play havoc with our hard work.
While other volunteers were working around me, I appreciated the opportunity to get into my own zone, to get my sweeping into some sort of rhythm and to meditate on what I was doing. I did actually build up a sweat as I tried to get ahead of potential gusts of wind that might destroy the evenly sized mounds of leaves awaiting pick-up and disposal.
I got to thinking about what I was actually doing – volunteering. Working with others towards the common goal of preparing the shrine precinct for visitors.
Shown Up By an 80-Year-Old: Time to Suck It Up!
This particular day in November was a dress rehearsal for New Years Eve when more than 800 local residents would visit the shrine to see in the new year. Making the place look presentable was a worthy goal.
The job took us a few hours. During a morning tea break about halfway through, I asked some of the others if it was quite normal to volunteer as we were doing. The volunteers exchanged awkward glances, engaged in teeth-sucking (a common Japanese response to tricky situations), intermittently scratched their heads, and stared alternately at their shoes and the sky.
It turns out most of the volunteers were doing so out of a sense of duty (read “peer pressure” here) more than any sense of commitment to the shrine. Furthermore, my local chain gang compatriots had this ‘do what’s expected when it’s your turn’ vibe going on. I was hoping for a more ‘glass-half-full’ outlook instead of feeling as though we were being dragged, kicking, and screaming into shine slavery. Ultimately, the real gem of an answer came from the guy in that picture up there, barely visible in the upper right, pushing a barrow full of leaves away. He’s almost 80 years of age, but he looked closer to 60.
“If everyone in the area takes a turn to do their bit, you only have to do this once every 15 years or so. This is my third and last time” he said with a wink and a wry smile.
Additionally, he went on to explain that participating in the activities of the committee – tidying, organizing various festival events, etc. – was all worth it when you see the reactions of the people who attend.
“I don’t do this for me. I do this for everyone who lives around this area.”
And there is was. I had my reason for slaving away early on this Saturday morning. It was a simple but worthy activity – the menial, time-consuming task of sweeping leaves – millions of them – with an ineffective, non-flying Japanese Nimbus!
From Leaf-Raking Hates to Helping Hearts: A Worthy Journey
We gathered the many tons of wind-tossed leaves into small mounds, all set to be unceremoniously dumped onto one massive heap somewhere behind the shrine precinct – usually a no-go zone for visitors. It instantly took me back to my childhood in Perth, Australia, and begrudgingly raking the leaves in our front garden. We lived in one of the older suburbs. I believe real estate agents like to describe them as “leafy.” Giant trees. Fun for climbing, but not fun to rake up and dispose of their leaves for 50 cents pocket money every Saturday morning!
Sorry, I’ve digressed. In my teens and in adulthood, I came to see an opportunity to help someone when they needed it as the right thing to do – an Aussie thing to do. Doing something to help someone else was character-building. It changed my focus from being inward-looking to looking beyond myself. As I would discover, that came with its own professional benefits very early in my career. I’ll leave that for a future blog post about the benefits of volunteering. For now, I will say the final results from our toil at the local shrine were well worth it.
On this clear, sunny November Saturday, I surveyed the grounds we’d cleared from leaves. The colour and beauty of where I stood was impressive! Oh, and it turns out the rumours I’d heard from some of my expatriate acquaintances, about the added side-benefits of volunteering with the local shrine committee, were true: Free beer – and Sushi – and lots of free beer!
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