Volunteering is great—you get to help a cause you’re passionate about, learn new skills and even meet new people as you do it. If you’re staying in Japan for a while, it’s an ideal opportunity to make lasting connections and give back to the community you’ve become a part of.

While volunteering opportunities back home may be easy to come by, it can seem a bit more daunting in Japan, especially if your Japanese isn’t great. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities around, from big-name international charities to local efforts. Depending on your interests and skills, you can seek out a cause specifically or check out one of the network groups below.

Things to remember when volunteering

Volunteers in Tokyo
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Like we said, volunteering is great and there are plenty of benefits, but it’s important to remember that you are helping them, not the other way round. When considering who to join, keep the following in mind:

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  • Consistency is key: Charities need commitment and reliability. Make sure you can put aside time for the sessions you sign up for (and for the minimum time requirement). If you can’t commit, consider some of the drop-in style opportunities like those offered by Hands On Japan.
  • Use the skills you have: Learning new skills is one option, but consider how you can contribute with the ones you have. Even if your specific skills are not be listed on the sites, there’s no harm in getting in touch and finding out if they can be of use to an organization.
  • Choose something you’re passionate about: Volunteering can be tough, so choosing something you feel strongly about can help with motivation.

Finding the right opportunity

tokyo volunteering
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Like we said, there’s a lot to consider when dedicating your time, and finding a volunteering position that’s right for you is key. A balance of availability, suitable skills and an inspiring cause may seem like a lot to ask, but there are some great resources out there to match you with a great charity. If you aren’t sure where to start, there are two great resources in Japan that open up the world of volunteering.

TVAC: The starting point in Tokyo

Coordinating volunteering opportunities across the capital, the Tokyo Voluntary Action Center is a fantastic resource. Working alongside NPOs, the public and the government, this organization liaises to provide volunteers, support services and networking opportunities both in English and Japanese.

Alongside training, research reports and consulting, they can connect individuals with charities suited to their availability and skill set. They divide opportunity listings by langauge, and have an office you can visit (but email ahead if you require English support).

If you want to volunteer in your local community, you can visit one of the local volunteer offices found throughout Tokyo. While Japanese may be needed for the majority of the roles, it never hurts to see what is available—you may be surprised.

Hands On Tokyo: Volunteer coordination (great for short term)

Part of a worldwide network, Hands On Tokyo has been coordinating volunteers and NPOs here since 2006. Recognizing the struggles presented by the language barrier, they created a “clearing house” approach and connect with partners to create projects that support their most pressing needs. With tried and tested practices from their international branches, they use volunteer leaders to head projects and bridge the gap between volunteers and organizations.

Activities range from working with senior citizens, gardening at a care home for infants, visiting children’s homes and helping at soccer groups—there’s a real variety to choose from. The sessions are easy to sign up for once registered and suit those who cannot make a fixed time commitment.

You can also visit the Foreign Volunteers in Japan Facebook group to see posts about opportunities across the country.

Five organizations to consider

To get you started, here are some of the larger charities in Tokyo who welcome volunteers without requiring Japanese.

1. Second Harvest Japan: A national foodbank

Preparing food, cooking
Photo by istock.com/AnnaRolandi

While foodbanks are on an incredible rise in many countries, they remain very much low-key in Japan and are closely connected to food-waste concerns. Second Harvest is a large organization that redistributes donated food from a mix of sources.

In addition to individual donations, they work with restaurants, food manufacturers and importers to gather unwanted items which are still useable. The donations are given to orphanages, community centers, soup kitchens, women’s shelters and aid agencies like JAR (see below). While you may be more used to a community center effort, Second Harvest is large scale and works tactically with agencies to promote the benefits of donation from a business perspective as well as for the social good.

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How you can get involved

The scale of the charity means there are a variety of ways to help:

  • Monetary donations: If you’re time poor but have funds, you can donate here. It doesn’t need to be a lot either, ¥3,000 will cover 120 meals for those in need.
  • Food donations: Individual donations are accepted from Monday to Friday, and the list includes everyday items like canned food, rice, pasta, cooking supplies and more. They do ask for items to have at least one month left on the use by date.
  • Hands-on volunteering: If you are keen to prepare meals, pack bentos, deliver food or serve those in need, there are plenty of ways to help with your time. You don’t have to speak Japanese. There are office roles too.

Visit their website for more information about the organization and opportunities available.

2. Japan Association for Refugees: Welcoming those in need

Donation Sorting for Charity
Photo by istock.com/mixetto

Supporting those seeking refuge in Japan from arrival to the start of a self-supported life, JAR is a small group doing great work. Based in Tokyo, they provide practical and legal support to those seeking refugee status and are always keen to hear from volunteers.

They work alongside the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and on all aspects of daily life as well as ongoing applications. From housing and medical support to social integration, they also work on advocacy and networking to promote positive change within the system.

How you can get involved

There are five main ways you can get involved with JAR, ranging from internship opportunities to volunteer work.

  • Donations: You can help with food, shelter and living costs for those in need.
  • Internships: If you want a fixed role, there are six-month internship spaces which require a minimum of two days per week (non-Japanese speakers accepted). If you are able to work full-time for more than three months, you can join the summer internship program.
  • Volunteering: For long-term involvement, their volunteer opportunities require a little less time. You can choose from weekly clothes sorting in Suidobashi or collecting food donations from Akihabara. There are also roles available for translators and interpreters living in Tokyo—so be sure to get in touch if you can help!

Visit their website for more information about the organization and opportunities available.

3. TELL Japan: Mental health support

Call Centre helpline
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Providing counseling and support to the international community in Japan, Tokyo English Lifeline (TELL) has been working in Tokyo since 1973. They offer cofidential and anonymous in-person and phone-led counseling. They also work to increase public awareness of mental health through community programs.

Inspired by the Japanese suicide prevention line Inochi-no-denwa, they now take thousands of calls a year and are aiming to provide a 24-hour line, with a new chat service recently made available. Given the stigma and low awareness of mental health issues in Japan, their work is vital and support is always needed.

How you can get involved

TELL encourages people to help in any way they can, from raising awareness to sponsorship.

  • Donations: Amounts raised are used to fund support services and campaigns and are tax deductible as they are a registered NPO.
  • Lifeline training: To volunteer for lifeline support, you must undergo comprehensive training over a nine-week period followed by an apprenticeship. Volunteers are asked to commit to 10 hours per month, for at least 12 months, including support and supervision sessions.
  • Volunteering: There are plenty of opportunities to work on special projects, fundraising and events (like the Tell Tokyo Tower Climb) as well as office-based roles.

Visit their website for more information about the organization and opportunities available.

4. Mirai no Mori: Working with children outdoors

tokyo volunteering with kids
Photo by istock.com/zurijeta

Offering life-changing programs for marginalized children, Mirai no Mori was launched in 2012 and runs summer camps and projects in Tohoku. The NPO aims to furnish children with essential life skills to adapt to the challenges they will inevitably face, focusing on cognitive, personal and interpersonal development.

They provide extended summer camps as well as regular monthly events for children in care homes and focus on the combination of the outdoors, diversity and strong role models. Volunteers can join the residential summer and winter camps as team leaders—a perfect opportunity if you’re working in Japan as a teacher.

How you can get involved

  • Donate: You can choose to support their efforts with a one-off donation or sign up for a monthly amount.
  • Join a summer camp: Become a team leader and join the annual summer camp in Miyagi. Training is required and transport and accommodation are covered.

Visit their website for more information about the organization and opportunities available.

5. Tokyo River Friends: Cleaning the city’s waterways

River clean up in Tokyo
Photo by iStock.com/lovelyday12

If you want something relaxed and focused on the environment, then the Tokyo River Friends clean-up group is an easy drop-in opportunity that makes a big difference to the capital’s rivers. Meeting up to clean the Arakawa and Edogawa River on weekends, the team collect impressive amounts of trash during their sessions.

Around 20 people attending each event and often going for dinner afterwards, it’s a great way to meet like-minded people. It’s also ideal for those with busy schedules as you can just drop-in on the day. You can watch a video of a recent collection (albeit in German) and see what it’s all about!

How you can get involved

  • Turn up: It’s that simple. Just check the schedule, make your way to the meeting point and spend a day in the fresh air. The group meets outside a designated train station before the session or you can meet them at the river if you’re late.

Visit their website for more information about the organization and opportunities available.

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