By Renay Loper (Iwate-ken, 2006-07) for JQ magazine. Renay is a freelance writer and Associate Program Officer at the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Visit her blog at Atlas in Her Hand.
Mike Maher-King (Fukui-ken, 2006-11), originally from Shoreham-by-Sea, UK (near Brighton) and founder of Smile Kids Japan, which was created with the mission to have every orphanage in Japan visited regularly by a volunteer team in an effort to provide children with mentoring, cultural exchange and a newfound sense of trust.
Having making several Japanese friends while attending Royal Holloway, University of London, Mike eventually traveled to Japan and while there, fell in love with the people, the language, the culture, and most of all…the food! After working for a couple years in the UK, Mike returned to Japan as an ALT and eventually went on to create an organization that would touch the lives of thousands of Japanese children.
Recently, Mike took a few moments away from his hectic schedule to share with us a little about his organization, the emergence of volunteerism in Japan, and the impact the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami have had on his work.
When you first began Smile Kids Japan, did you realize you were introducing the concept of mentoring to the Japanese you were working with?
I didn’t actually realize that there are not as many opportunities for people to volunteer here in Japan as there are in the UK, USA, Canada. etc. until I started looking for a way to volunteer. I think with the cultural senpai-kohai (seniority based relationships) system here in Japan, the idea of mentoring isn’t at all new. However, this application of it is relatively new.
What challenges did you encounter doing volunteer work in Japan, where volunteerism isn’t as popular as it is in countries such as the UK or U.S.?
Setting up the very first meeting took a few months and lots of Japanese bureaucracy skills. But it was definitely worth the prodding! That and the initial 10 minutes of shyness, and walking into a room 1/4 of the size I expected with 10 more kids than we thought would choose to come meant all our planning wasn’t quite right! Further, it was also a little tricky to explain to some of the children’s homes what we wanted to do.
What do you think Smile Kids Japan has done for volunteerism in Japan?
There are so many people who do not realize the need for volunteers until they see it with their own eyes. I think that we are [now] approaching the tipping point. However, it is still a work in progress. We have provided an outlet for many people that want to help but didn’t have a channel for their energy. The [recent] earthquake initially transformed things with a huge amount of people volunteering. It will be interesting to see if this is carried back to people’s towns all around Japan.
How has your work changed since the March disasters?
I have realized the importance of letting others help and have been incredibly lucky to find four amazing people to form a new Smile Kids Japan board—Anna Ho, Avalyn Beare, Kevin Mitchell and Meredith Smith. I have also formed an advisory board to provide help and advice with specific things. This has meant two things: One, we are going to grow quicker than ever over this coming year with all this new energy and stronger base. Two, I have been able to focus a little on the Tohoku region and on providing the best possible support to all the homes in the most affected three prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. We are working on summer camps with English Adventure, computers, music therapy with the Japanese Philharmonic, books, basketball events and more!
What are your goals for Smile Kids Japan moving forward?
Our vision when we set out was to have a visit in every orphanage in Japan within five years, and this year is going to be key in making that happen. Once we establish a few more visits I believe the snowball effect will become more pronounced and we will be able to make a significant lasting and sustainable change here in Japan. This year we are going to start actively working with other groups, something we have always promoted and believed in. We are already talking to some universities and some private companies about Smile Kids Japan and soon I hope to have more volunteers than there are JETs in Japan! The JET network and support of AJET is at the very core of what we do, as the JETs with their prefectural groups are acting as the trailblazers!
We are also now working with the NPO Living Dreams on the Tohoku Smiles and Dreams project. Living Dreams is an NPO that until the earthquake supported 33 homes in Tokyo with an incredible program offering computers, mentoring, and even university scholarships! Ultimately, I want to see the work we do come together nationwide as it is in Tohoku with every home in Japan receiving regular volunteers who help assess the needs of the home for the material and mental support that Living Dreams can offer. They are incredible and it’s amazing to be working with them in Tohoku!
How can other JET alumni and friends support Smile Kids Japan both in and out of Japan?
There are two key ways that JETAA and friends can support Smile Kids Japan: raising awareness and raising funds! We want all the new JETs coming to Japan to be aware of the volunteering opportunities here in Japan and to come to Japan already thinking about volunteering in their local orphanage. We have started working with Canadian and American JETAA groups and national conferences, and I believe this is a key element to us reaching even more homes and kids nationwide. The Tohoku Kids Support Project is the other way groups can help. For 2.5 million yen per year you can “adopt an orphanage” and we can provide an extensive support program that helps empower these kids to discover and live these dreams, from summer camps to computers.
You recently presented at TEDxTokyo. What was that like?
Less scary than I thought it would be! The team there helped me with everything and made me feel relaxed and well prepared over the whole weekend. Exhilarating to meet the people there and bounce ideas around—lots of great things have materialized from it. Stay tuned to Smile Kids Japan for the details coming soon!
What is the one thing you wish you would have known before you started Smile Kids Japan?
Nothing! I just wish I had started it a year or two earlier!
Any advice for those looking to start an organization in Japan?
Do it. A good idea can change people’s lives if properly developed. If people have any ideas and want specific advice please mail me anytime (smilekidsjapan [at] gmail [dot] com)!
If you weren’t with Smile Kids Japan now, where do you think you’d be?
I have no idea! There are a million things I want to do with my life so if I hadn’t started Smile Kids Japan I imagine I would be studying or travelling somewhere exotic and exciting.
For more on Smile Kids Japan, visit www.smilekidsjapan.org.