Japan has the modernity, luxuries, and infrastructure of a developed Western nation, with many unique cultural aspects of the Far East. Even though Japan has a thriving economy and less need for volunteers than more under-developed Asian countries, you can still find a volunteer opportunity that is suited for you while getting exposure to Japanese culture, tradition, and language.
There is a high demand in Japan for volunteers who can teach English, as well as be caretakers for the elderly and for agricultural work on farms. It is possible to find volunteer opportunities in Japan's big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, as well as rural areas and small towns all throughout the country. Japan is a very safe travel destination with a high value on customer service, per Buddhist and Shintoist tradition, so you can rest assured that you will receive great treatment wherever you go.
Although Japan is a well-developed and prosperous country, the need for volunteers is still great in a number of sectors. Volunteering in Japan is an incredible way to learn about Japanese culture and language while gaining skills and providing support in an area of your interest. Although you can volunteer in many different sectors, the following are the most common types of volunteer opportunities found in Japan.
Youth Development & Education
Japan offers opportunities to work with youth in educational as well as more recreational settings. Many programs place volunteers in schools to work as teaching fellows, to advance student development and education in the classroom. Japan also has many children's camps in need of volunteers, including sports camps and English-learning camps, which encourage physical and mental development in youth.
Japan is experiencing a significant aging problem: more than a quarter of Japan's population is over the age of 65, and this percentage is only increasing. In traditional Japanese culture, it's expected that family members will take care of other aging family members. However, the burden of caregiving often becomes too serious for family members to handle. There are many volunteer opportunities to work with the elderly in senior homes or in personal homes. Working with the elderly in these settings can range from assisting them with daily tasks in their home to leading musical therapy and physical exercises in a senior home.
Although only 20% of Japan's land is suitable for cultivation, the countryside is still vastly covered by rice paddies and other non-paddy farmland. Volunteering on farms offers a great opportunity to work with locals and, often live in a homestay, while learning about organic farming practices and exploring Japan beyond urban life. WWOOF is a great volunteer opportunity if you want to work on a farm, live with a host family, and explore Japan beyond the surface.
Planning your trip to Japan should be largely based on the specific program you are interested in. This will determine your housing arrangement and how much of the language you're comfortable with before going to Japan.
Regardless of these factors, it is important to familiarize yourself with the cultural mannerisms in Japan before going overseas. In Japan, many places expect patrons to remove your footwear before entering. Other cultural etiquette includes bowing as an exchange of greeting, avoiding making direct eye contact with elders, and handling items with two hands. Knowing some of these cultural subtleties will help you acclimate to life in Japan.
Where to Volunteer in Japan
The big cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are the most popular destinations for international volunteers and foreign tourists alike. If you're seeking a less-touristy and more rural experience, Miyagi, Chiba, and Shizuoka are all prefectures on the Pacific coast that have children's camps and farms in need of volunteers.
Housing & Accommodation
Most of the agricultural volunteer programs offer either homestays, which will provide a high level of cultural and language immersion, or camping-like accommodations, which will allow you to really enjoy Japan's natural beauty. Other program providers in Japan may place volunteers in apartment or hotel accommodations, often with other volunteers. Accommodations may be traditional or modern style residences, but both options will reflect Japan's decadence and luxurious lifestyle.
Language Requirements & Tips
Language requirements vary vastly depending on the type of program. Programs that involve teaching English to youth typically don't require Japanese language skills as they want you to speak only English to the students. However, many other programs require Japanese language ability to do the work itself.
Regardless of whether you speak Japanese, it's important to be familiar with cultural nuances. Most significantly, Japanese culture is more hierarchical and formal than American culture, with an emphasis on respecting elders.
When comprising your packing list for Japan, it's important to note that Japan is a modest country, and, especially if you plan on visiting any religious sites, you will need to cover up a bit. It is also advised to have a pair of shoes with you that slip on-and-off easily, as many places, including religious sites, personal homes, and restaurants, require the removal of shoes before entering.
Japan has four distinct seasons with different weather conditions, so it's important to check the weather for the time of year you want to volunteer. For example, if you visit Japan during the rainy season of June and July, you will want to bring clothes that can withstand rain. You also probably won't want to be doing a volunteer project that works mainly outdoors, such as farming. Consider if your desired program aligns with the weather conditions during the time of the year.
It's easy to get a data-only SIM card to use your cell phone in Japan without roaming charges. You can get these upon landing in Japan and even in the airport, but it's always helpful to order one ahead of time and pack it with you. Packing a universal adapter to use Japanese-style sockets is also recommended. Japan's electrical outlets are two-pronged, so you will need an adapter to use any plug with three prongs.
Additional Tips for Volunteering in Japan
Japan is a highly developed country and one of the most expensive destinations in Asia, especially if you are in one of the large cities. However, it is still possible to stick to a budget and find hole-in-the-wall places to eat, shop, and immerse yourself in local culture.
Visas are not required for stays of less than 90 days. If you plan on volunteering for upwards of 90 days, your program provider can help you apply for a tourist, business, or visitors visa.
Japan is overall a very safe country with a modern and highly-developed infrastructure. The crime rate is low, and tourists can feel comfortable walking about on their own, while exercising normal safety precautions and securing valuables. If you're volunteering with an organized program, most will help you with a pre-departure checklist that may include paperwork for visas and navigating other necessities like health or travel insurance.
No vaccinations are required prior to volunteering in Japan, but it's recommended to get the Japanese encephalitis vaccine if you're planning to volunteer for an extended time in rural areas. The influenza vaccine is also recommended for all travelers from November through April. For more information, visit MD Travel Health.
Japan has a national health insurance system, which is only available to foreigners with long-term visas. As so, international visitors and volunteers are encouraged to look into supplemental insurance for overseas coverage. English-speaking physicians and medical facilities that cater to Americans' expectations are expensive and not very widespread, but the U.S. Embassy provides a list of English-speaking medical facilities.
Crime against travelers in Japan is generally low and usually involves personal disputes, theft, or vandalism. Pickpocketing can occur in crowded shopping areas, on trains, and at airports, so it's best to carry a bag that you can wear in front of you, rather than on your back. Use particular caution in the nightlife districts throughout Japan, especially in larger cities and more touristy areas.
Volunteer Programs in Japan
Can I go to Japan without a visa?
If you're from a number of countries, you may not need to get a short-term visa before arriving in Japan. These include the EU, Australia, Argentina, the United States, and others. If you're interning or working in Japan, make sure to get the appropriate visa for your situation -- check the Japanese Embassy for the latest information before you book your tickets.
How long can you volunteer for in Japan?
Most volunteer programs are at least a week long. However, you can consider volunteering for a few weeks or months, depending on the program and how much time you have available. Usually, a tourist visa lasts for three months. If you plan to volunteer for longer than three months, you will have to apply to a different visitor visa.
Do you need to know Japanese to volunteer?
Generally, you do not need to know Japanese for most volunteer programs, such as teaching English. However, it varies from program to program and the location. For example, if you decide to volunteer in a rural area, it's less likely there will be many English speakers or speakers of other languages. Plus, it never hurts to learn a few phrases to get around, and shows the local people you're putting in extra effort!