Barbara Charlotte Wurster

Japan: On the way to an inclusive society

Between 11 and 26 February 2019, a group of young experts under the age of 40 visited Japan on the invitation of the Japanese Cabinet Office – the 17th such exchange. Among the group were nine German experts who work with senior citizens, young people or people with disabilities. Here, German delegation leader Barbara Wurster from the Federal Youth Ministry reports on the trip.

Nine disability assistance experts travelled to Oita, Japan to learn about improving the rate of employment among people with disabilities. BildImage: Sybille Florin

Established in 2002 with generous funding from the Japanese government, the youth exchange scheme has developed into an international cooperation programme spanning more than 20 countries. Each year Japan invites young experts from the three partner countries that received a Japanese delegation of experts in October of the prior year. IJAB provided support to the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in preparing for the trip, in cooperation with BAGSO, the German National Association of Senior Citizens' Organisations in Bonn, which handled the senior citizen-related aspects.

The shared objective: How to create a society that leaves no one behind?

This year the exchange programme focused on how the risks and potentials of digitalisation and IT are influencing the creation of an inclusive society, and what role NGOs in all four countries play when it comes to autonomy, participation and inclusion. The well-organised and lively exchange with participants from Finland, Germany, New Zealand and Japan was a source of inspiration for all delegates ¬– an ideal occasion for us to share our experiences, ideas and opinions on how to best create an inclusive society.

NPO Management Forum, Tokyo (15-18 February 2019)

The outcomes of the debates surrounding new information systems, data protection and artificial intelligence provided input for the NPO Management Forum (15-18 February) at the International Youth Centre in Tokyo. For more than 100 Japanese delegates, this was the first opportunity they had to meet their international peers. Visits had been organised to two institutions in Tokyo to deliver further input. The day spent at the Faculty of Information Networking at Tokyo University  highlighted how important – and difficult – it is in Japan to distinguish between personal and private data . The visit to Tokyo Colony yielded valuable insights into the benefits of Japan’s Privacy Mark certificate for data privacy, which raises awareness and creates trust, and demonstrated how well Tokyo Colony’s “emergency card” scheme for Tokyo is now embraced all over Japan. Both instruments help to exchange the data required to provide high-quality services for senior citizens.

After these two fairly tiring day-long visits, all young participants had developed very similar visions and succeeded in working together to prepare for the final session of the Forum. One recognisable special feature of our international discussion process was the mutual respect shown by all participants – an intercultural learning achievement in its own right.

The delegations then left Tokyo with a heavy heart but also with a smile, because now they were headed to their respective next destinations for the Regional Programme: Oita (persons with disabilities), Tottori (youth work) and – in my case – Kumamoto (senior citizens).

Regional Programmes deliver insights

In Tottori, the least populous prefecture in Japan, nine youth services experts learned about how a community serves young people, a group that in Japan includes everyone under the age of 39.

The visit to Kahoku Elementary School demonstrated how social activities for students can encourage them to engage in community-building (With You Tsubasa). Yonago Youth Support Station assists unemployed young people in finding jobs locally. Ikura no Sato is a youth project that reaches out to hikikomori (isolated individuals) and NEETs (persons not in employment, education or training), especially through sports.

The nine disability assistance experts travelled to Oita to learn about model projects to raise the rate of employment among persons with disabilities, and visited projects serving persons with disabilities in need of long-term care. They visited Sun Industries (Taiyonoie), a social welfare organisation that cooperates with companies such as Sony, Omron and Mitsubishi to find jobs for persons with disabilities under the motto “No charity, but a chance”. Taiyonoie was established by Dr Yutaka Nakamura, who is considered the founding father of the disabled sports movement in Japan. The delegation also visited Yatsuboshi-no Oka, which offers a “cohesive type service” that was recently introduced in the prefecture. The scheme enables persons with disabilities to live to old age with care and support.

The nine senior citizens experts flew to Kumamoto, 30% of whose population is accounted for by elderly individuals. Model projects in this region demonstrate that senior citizens requiring care can remain in their familiar surroundings longer if there are day-care facilities in the area – such as the Koshi Centre – that offer a variety of activities for senior citizens, children and persons with disabilities all under the same roof, making daily life easier for everyone. This is complemented by voluntary neighbourhood schemes such as Pokka Pokka. “Salons” are attractive places for individuals to spend time together and escape isolation. They also provide information on dementia and, similar to Germany’s multi-generation houses, enable lively interaction between the generations at the local level.

Here and during the local seminar, the German delegation sat down with around 80 young Japanese experts to share Germany’s experiences with multi-generation houses, local alliances, volunteer schemes and support for them by NGOs working under the umbrella of BAGSO, the German National Association of Senior Citizens' Organisations.

Conclusions from the Regional Programmes

The participants from all four countries unanimously agreed that the potentials of the “young older citizens” need to be better used. This requires a more realistic portrayal of what it means to be old, also in the media. Information about the German travelling exhibition “What’s  old anyway?” was received with much interest.

In all four countries, the number of older individuals will continue to increase while birth rates decline. In Japan, this is already leading to severe challenges since the overall population is currently shrinking, which is not the case in Germany, for instance, where there is more immigration.

Final remarks

The German delegation were deeply impressed by Japan’s high-quality, positive activities that put individuals in the spotlight and help the elderly to stay in their familiar surroundings for longer and participate actively in society. We also agreed that this is the ideal human rights-based approach – the kind that a truly inclusive society needs.

All participants were certain that the creation of spaces where young and old can engage (e.g., Germany’s multi-generation houses) is vital. They suggested, for instance, to hold photography competitions involving young people that help to create a realistic picture of what old age means today. This kind of awareness-raising can also help to improve the image of elderly care. For instance, the German exhibition “What’s old anyway?” could also be shown in Japan in order to inspire a wider debate.

It was obvious to the German delegation that in Kumamoto, there appears to be a strong awareness of the potential of senior citizens, as reflected in the prefecture’s motto “Don’t be afraid of old age, enjoy your old age, and stay active”.

The Regional Programme, in particular, encouraged us to follow the developments surrounding senior citizens in Japan more closely in future. Germany has a lot to learn from Japan, especially given that 10 million members of the baby boomer generation will soon reach retirement age.

To conclude, let me mention one highlight that stood out despite the as always tightly-packed agenda: a weekend spent with a Japanese host family. I was privileged to spend time with two sisters my own age and their families and visit the Asa volcano and the beautiful Kumamoto mountains.

If ever an occasion to go on an exchange like this to Japan presents itself, I thoroughly recommend that it be seized. IJAB will continue to support the Federal Ministry in executing this programme, and its outstanding introductory courses are an excellent way to prepare for these special visits. I am hence deeply grateful to IJAB for its support.

An extended PDF version of this article (in German) can be downloaded here.

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