Applications to volunteer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opened this week. Apart from the odd share on Facebook, how excited are people about the volunteering gig? Although I’m about to make some concerning observations, I still (unironically) want to apply.
1. Application requirements
People were complaining about the application requirements long before the application went live yesterday. Here’s an example as early as two years ago from RocketNews24, whose English-language writers are usually more gung-ho about these Japanese events:
Here is a brief rundown of some of the conditions and qualities that a potential volunteer should be able to meet.
- Possess communication skills
- Speak a foreign language
- Work over ten eight-hour days
- Have knowledge of events or experience watching them live
- Be over 18 years old in 2020
- Go through three stages of training and an interview
- Pay for own transportation and accommodation
Of course, this being a volunteer position, there is no payment for those selected, but the Organising Committee points out that they can keep their uniforms for free. You might be wondering why someone with such skills and availability would want to help out at the Olympics for next to nothing, and you wouldn’t be alone judging by some of the many comments that poured in.
“They wasted so much money on this pork barrel and now expect to get skilled workers for free? I mean why would they actually give some of the money back to the regular people?”
“I’d have a hard time hiring people like that for 2,000 yen (US$20) an hour.”
“This is what happens when they squander money on things that aren’t needed. Welcome to the low-(labor)-cost Olympics!”
So, as with all job applications, what does the online application entail? (Wait—volunteering isn’t supposed to be a job, is it?)
First, they want to see if you have any volunteer experience, and any volunteer leader experience, and write an essay about it.
Next, they want my language experience and my language test scores. I guess it helps that I need to take the IELTS for law school in Hong Kong. Also, I guess JLPT N1 vocabulary such as 顔から火が出るほど恥ずかしい would infinitely legitimise my volunteer contribution to the biggest modern event in post-Heisei Japan.
Now, they want to schedule a training appointment with me a year in advance. What will they even talk about in those training sessions?
This is at least six times more information than I had to provide for a real job application last summer.
2. The government is concerned no one will volunteer
After receiving a certain amount of backlash about the volunteer application (and still going ahead with it anyway), the Organizing Committee became concerned that no-one from Japan, unlike me, would take the bait to volunteer for the Olympics.
It’s telling that they did not put a deadline for the application; merely an ambiguous statement that the application closes in December.
NHK reports that universities all over Tokyo are considering giving college credit for students who volunteer:
NHK contacted over 130 universities in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. Nearly half of those who responded said that they were considering giving course credit to students who would volunteer.
Masayuki Kobayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on university education, said, “volunteering is something you’re supposed to do out of your own volition [cf doing something for compensation]; and volunteering after a natural disaster happens is very different from volunteering at the Olympics. I don’t like this system of universities incentivising students to volunteer with credits.”
Or, as RocketNews24 puts it:
While rewarding student volunteers with credits to advance their undergraduate programs is a nice gesture, the move also makes clear that the Olympic Committee does not want to pay for highly-skilled individuals who must speak a foreign language, work over ten full days, and sit through several training sessions. Not to mention that they must pass an interview.
One of the people NHK interviewed for its report is a Waseda University student called Kazuki Matsumoto, whose essay on the volunteering application went viral.
According to the English version of Mainichi Shimbun (because the equivalent article in Japanese is behind a paywall):
Website creator Kazuki Matsumoto, 20, a second-year student at the Waseda University School of Political Science and Economics in Tokyo, did not plan for his website to spread like wildfire. He put the page together in roughly 6 hours on Aug. 19 thinking he might just show it to a few friends. By the next day, however, it had made its way across several social media platforms, and climbed into the Japanese domestic top 3 “trends” ranking on Twitter for a time.
Marketing writer Megumi Ushikubo, 50, who often interviews young people, pointed out, “The acceptance by young people that even if something is unpaid, ‘there is meaning in simply working up a sweat and doing your best’ ended with the bubble generation.
“The young generation today feels rather strongly that they want to be of use to other people. One could even say that is the spirit of volunteer work,” Ushikubo emphasized. “Simply calling for participation without being able to concretely explain how volunteering will be helpful will only lead to antagonism. Clearly explaining and gaining understanding (from young people) will be important.”
The website text (in my opinion) is actually a giant jab in Shinzo Abe’s eye:
There’s just two years until the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. I eagerly await for Japan, the country with a can-do attitude, to create a “Beautiful Olympics” from the bottom of my heart.
The Organizing Committee has kindly bestowed us students the opportunity to volunteer, a role that fills us with motivation! There’s an old saying in Japan that goes like this: “Be willing to pay for your sacrifices while you are young.” However, the Organizing Committee is generously giving us this invaluable opportunity for free!! [Note: I suspect this is a pun in the Japanese phrase 若いうちの苦労は買ってでもしろ: you don’t even need to pay anything to sacrifice yourself to the Olympics. = 無料で提供してくださる ]
Will there be any other opportunity like this?
Once you volunteer at the Olympics, a world-class event, not only will you be motivated and moved, you can make use of your volunteering experience in your future life; for example, there is a definite connection with your career search. Many big name companies that represent Japan and the world sponsor the Tokyo Olympics. Once you talk about your Tokyo Olympics moments in your resumes and interviews, whether it’s Panasonic, Nomura Securities, Recruit, or Asahi Shimbun, you will most definitely get an offer!
An Olympics budgeted for a trillion yen, but the Committee is too frugal to even give a penny to any volunteer, skilled or not. Top executives who advocate for diversity while shamelessly excluding people. Conglomerates who have no real interest in the Olympics but dish out huge sums for marketing and corporate social responsibility. Producing Olympic medals in cities as if forging metal for war. People who practice doublethink and know that the Olympics shouldn’t happen for environmental reasons, but say that the Olympics is great for the environment. The “bamboo spear” mentality of tackling what everyone knows with be unbearable heat with mere water sprinklers. Politicians who all of a sudden become excited about daylight savings time even with heavy criticism from sleep and computer experts, and that it is an outdated concept which many other countries are considering abolishing. Japanese citizens who are easily fooled by nice sounding words like yarigai, kizuna, and kando, even though there are problems mounting everywhere. Once all of these elements are present, with the power of Japan, the Beautiful Country, and its world-famous ideology of self-sacrifice, we can definitely have the best Olympics ever.
What about Japan’s gaikokujin students? Surely their love for Cool Japan® must be a huge motivating factor? What does NHK’s reporting have to say?
An Indonesian exchange student said, “Since it’s a big event, I would like to try to join as a volunteer translator. But I’m worried whether I can work diligently for eight hours a day like Japanese do.”
Perhaps in response to all of the above criticism, Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports that the organizing committee is considering doing the following:
It is said that instead of paying nothing, paying 500 yen in transportation fees is already a lot. Atsushi Seike (former Keio University president) said, “This is the biggest amount we can give in our limited budget.”
One, of course, is a hundred percent bigger than zero. So that’s the standard they are judging themselves with.
3. What is volunteering?
Katsuo Satoshi takes a stab in his essay, “Volunteers Sought for 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Under Harsh Conditions”, in GQ Japan:
It may be because a culture of volunteering hasn’t been cultivated in Japan. But I have always questioned the fact that the Committee is recruiting people for free. The most important part of volunteering is that it is voluntary and of your own will. The Olympics has to succeed, but it doesn’t have enough financial or human resources. The inevitable conclusion is that the volunteers are the stop-gap that they have to rely on.
But I don’t think this is about whether a certain country has instilled enough volunteering spirit in its national psyche. The truth is that volunteer is free labour. And that’s not even accurate: volunteers are paying to be exploited. They need to find room and board, money for food, and of course plane tickets to get to Tokyo.
Every single situation of free labour carries a real risk of exploitation. If you’re not in an employment relationship, who’s going to help you? In a foreign country?
While I cannot profess to be an expert on the volunteering spirit, here is one perspective I received from a triathlon athlete who newly joined an organization I was working at in the past month. The athlete told me that the volunteers at Rio were on call at every moment. They were the ones who made sure a masseuse came when an athlete wanted one, that there was enough sodium in the energy drinks, and that they paved over every single logistical nightmare that could happen so they could get to their events. It is, after all, their fifteen minutes of fame.
So, is anyone ready to become every Olympian’s abused minion for a week?