By Yuka Kumakura / Japan News Staff Writer On a sweltering weekend in mid-July, volunteers wearing matching yellow T-shirts walked around Shinjuku Station in Tokyo looking for foreign travelers who seemingly might be having some trouble.
This is what members of Osekkai Japan do, volunteering to go to places where many tourists gather in the hopes of guiding them or helping them solve other kinds of issues. Befitting their name, which literally means “meddlesome,” they offer their help even if they have not been asked to do so.
There have been about 1,000 cases of volunteers joining in the activities over the last five years. But what attracts so many people to Osekkai Japan?
To find out, I joined the group for a day.
On July 20, I set off with the members from Shinjuku Station to seek foreigners who might need assistance. Printed on the back of our yellow T-shirts were the words “Need some help?” in English and Chinese.
Shinjuku Station is known as the world’s busiest train station with a daily average of 3.64 million passengers going through the station complex, which has more than 200 exits, as recognized by Guinness World Records in 2011. Anyone, even locals, can get lost easily.
Nine volunteers gathered for the day, including high school and university students and company employees from Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea. We walked around while observing people’s faces and the movements of passersby in and around the station.
Whenever we found someone who seemed to be having some trouble, say, wearing puzzled looks while checking their smartphones or wandering around confusedly with a guidebook in their hands, we asked them, “May I help you?”
Of course, it did not necessarily mean all such people needed our help. But about an hour after joining the group, I came to realize what motivates volunteers to show foreign travelers such kindness, even though they haven’t been asked. There is a sense of fulfillment in meeting new people and having a heartwarming experience.
Soon we saw a group of three men looking at a map. They were from the United States, were looking for a locker and wanted to book a bus for Narita Airport. After we helped them on those two issues, one of them suddenly took glasses out of his bag and asked us where he could get them fixed. We took them to a nearby eyewear shop. In a couple of minutes, a shop clerk tightened a loose screw in the glasses for free.
“You guys are volunteers?” said John Jang, a 30-year-old law school student who was among the trio of Americans. “Just to help people? Very helpful.”
During these developments, I saw the volunteers having a good time helping the Americans and interacting with these travelers from abroad. They listened to the travelers’ stories. They were in Japan for the first time to enjoy food and culture and had been in Tokyo for two weeks. The travelers even shared with the volunteers photos they took during their stay. They could now share a heartwarming experience of getting glasses fixed for free.
We walked around Shinjuku Station for about 90 minutes and around Shibuya Station for about 3 hours during the day and our assistance to foreign travelers included a Chinese group looking for a path to the Busta Shinjuku highway bus terminal, Swiss travelers searching for a Japan Railways (JR) ticket counter and Spanish travelers searching for a sushi restaurant.
“At the office, people rarely thank me for my work because I’m still learning about my job,” said Osekkai Japan volunteer Misaki Maki, a company employee who graduated from university and entered the workforce this spring. “But when I join in this activity, people say thank you to me a lot. It is very rewarding.”
Another participant, Hiromi Sakairi, is a working mother and has great command of Spanish and Portuguese in addition to English and her native Japanese.
“We learn a lot from foreigners traveling in Japan whenever we help them, for example, what the popular restaurants are or what are the trendy goods among them,” Sakairi said. “Sometimes their stories make me want to try those shops and goods.”
Osekkai Japan’s representative, planning company president Hideki Kinai, 58, launched the group in April 2014.
What motivated him to start the group were the people he met during his trips to Africa. When he was a university freshman, he traveled alone to Africa for the first time. About 10 days into his travels, he had a fever in Tanzania. He did not ask anyone for help, but people let him on an overcrowded bus heading for a big city so he could get medical attention. Kinai has never forgotten their kindness and has visited Africa nearly 25 times since then.
Through Osekkai Japan, Kinai aims to inspire more people to actively help others in need.
“It doesn’t mean that we want more groups similar to us to be launched across Japan and abroad,” he said. “Rather, we want to inspire others so more people in general help others actively.”
To launch the group, he had to find volunteers who could speak foreign languages. At the time, his daughter was studying at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies so her friends were asked to join. Then more people gradually began joining the group.
Since the inception of the group, volunteers skilled in about 20 languages have been involved in group activities held once per month without cease, even in bad weather.
Osekkai Japan volunteers take their time to help others, sometimes even spending hours on just one person. Kinai said he once spent five hours helping a Frenchman get to a private lodging he said he had booked. Without detailed information on the lodging, Kinai made phone calls and other efforts to find it. Eventually, Kinai booked a different hotel for the man.
“When I walk outside, I’m constantly on the lookout for someone who seems to need help,” he said. “There are various kinds of troubles in society. I hope more people will follow in our footsteps in their daily life.”