TOKYO, Japan – On December 23, 15 men and women clad in matching yellow jackets gathered at the pedestrian-only zone in Tokyo’s Ginza district, where department stores and luxury brand shops are located. Printed on the back of their jackets are the words “Need some help?” in English and Chinese.
When these people find tourists who seem to have lost their way or seem to be bewildered, they quickly rush to them and ask, “What’s wrong?”
They are members of Osekkai (meddlesome) Japan, a volunteer organization established in April last year. The volunteers go to places where many tourists gather, such as the Ginza, Asakusa and Tsukiji districts, about once a month and guide people or help as interpreters, even if they are not asked to do so.
The group is made up of about 40 students and adults who have a good command of foreign languages such as English and Spanish. They sometimes go to areas outside Tokyo, such as Kyoto. Some even went on an expedition to the Great Wall of China.
That day in Ginza, Yuka Toyama, 21, a junior at Waseda University, spoke to two young men from Finland who were looking at a map. They said they were looking for a bus stop for a double-deck sightseeing bus. Toyama guided them to the bus stop with three other guides. Each guide was hugged by the delighted Finnish men. Toyama felt warm. “It’s good we could be of help,” she said.
The group’s representative, planning company president Hideki Kinai, 53, was brought up in the Senri New Town development in northern Osaka Prefecture. In the residential complexes, mutual aid and the borrowing and lending of small items such as soy sauce were common among residents.
From his room on the fifth floor, he could see the Taiyo no To tower under construction for the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka. The tower was an artwork designed by Taro Okamoto as a symbol of the exposition. Kinai, who was a third-year primary school student when the Osaka Expo was held, visited the exposition venue 33 times using discount tickets that he received from an elderly woman living nearby.
Fascinated by a mysterious African pavilion, he traveled to Africa alone after saving money when he was a freshman at university.
About 10 days after he started traveling, he developed a fever in Tanzania. Thinking that it would be safer to go to a big town, he managed to arrive at a bus stop in the early morning. The bus he intended to take was surrounded by a crowd of people who were waiting to get on the bus. Kinai thought it would be impossible to get on. The people around him, however, said it was no problem and put his backpack on the roof of the bus and pulled him inside. The bus conductor even stood up and vacated his seat for Kinai.
Many African people helped Kinai, an Asian man who seemed in ill health, though he did not ask them for anything. Kinai, who could not forget their consideration, visited Africa about 20 times after that.
Kinai’s experiences in a residential complex amid Japan’s rapid growth period and in Africa motivated him to establish the organization.
Osekkai Japan volunteers have also been through some unforgettable experiences. Last summer, the members found a family of three Americans seemingly in a panic at the heavily crowded Yaesu exit of JR Tokyo Station.
When the members talked to the family, they said they could not find the locker in which their baggage was stored and the departure time for the train to Narita Airport was approaching.
The members checked a receipt the family had and discovered that the locker was near the Marunouchi exit of the station, on the opposite side of the station. The guides quickly escorted the family there.
Once there, however, they could not open the locker because the family had already refunded an IC card that served as the key.
The members phoned the locker’s management company. About five minutes later, an employee of the company rushed there and opened the locker.
The Americans were deeply moved and invited the volunteers to stay at their home in New York if they ever visited the city. They gave them an e-mail address.
A Chinese student studying in Japan is also involved in the activities. Qiao Wang Xin, a 19-year-old junior at Beijing Foreign Studies University came to Japan in September and joined the group after being invited by a friend. In China, there is a saying that people should lend a helping hand to others. Even so, he was amazed by such well-mannered Japanese who always seemed to be considerate to others.
The Chinese student sometimes felt that Japanese were a bit cold because they usually do not talk to others because they do not want to bother others. On the other hand, he thought it was not difficult for Japanese people to understand foreigners because they had strong concern for others.
In another five years, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, whose keyword is “omotenashi” (hospitality), will be held.
“I want to convey to young people the importance of taking action, even if they are not accustomed to face-to-face communications with strangers though they are familiar with communicating on the Internet,” Kinai said.
He hopes to transmit this special “osekkai” or “meddlesome” characteristic of Japanese people to the world.
The annual number of overseas visitors to Japan in 2013 was 10.36 million, exceeding 10 million for the first time. The government hopes to raise the annual number of foreign visitors to 20 million by 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held.
According to the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013 released by the World Economic Forum, Japan placed 14th out of 140 countries and regions around the world. Japan placed first regarding “degree of customer orientation,” while placing 74th in “attitude toward foreign visitors” because of language barriers and other factors.