From The Editor

Back to Contents of Issue: February 2002

by Bruce Rutledge

DO THE JAPANESE HAVE a volunteer spirit? We've heard all sorts of theories, but they never quite answer the question. Some pundits will argue that charity and philanthropy are alien concepts in Japanese culture; the other side will point to Japan's leading role in providing aid to impoverished countries. The naysayers will counter by arguing that the official development assistance offered by the government is often tied to public works projects that directly benefit Japanese companies overseas, and so on and so forth. In the end, you're still left wondering.

Well, the simple answer to the question is a resounding, "Yes." Perhaps more than ever before, Japan's spirit of volunteerism is becoming apparent. We're not talking about government aid or corporate philanthropy, but about the actions of citizens dedicated to improving their world. In the last several years, a combination of technological change brought about by the spread of the Internet and email, and corporate restructuring, which has left a generation of 50-something Japanese men adrift, have combined to bolster activist and volunteer groups in Japan. Since the Internet bubble burst in December 1999, there has been a more than 400 percent rise in nongovernmental offices in Japan; the number of volunteers is also rising at a double-digit clip each year. From genetically modified foods to sexual harassment to global warming, issues are grasping the imagination of the Japanese and prodding them to take action.

Our special report this month beginning on page 22 has three parts: The first focuses on technology and volunteerism, and the last two provide glimpses of what is motivating individual volunteer groups. We hope this provides the basis for more cogent discussions of Japan and volunteerism in the future.

Also this month, J@pan Inc contributing editor Sam Joseph takes us deep into the world of robotics in "Robots R Us" on page 14. He shows how robots are intertwined with Japanese culture, and how the idea of machines having souls never did trouble the Japanese much. Joseph shows us just how much a part of Japanese culture robotics is: High school kids are making robots to compete in sumo tournaments, corporations are spending millions on robotic pets, and universities are developing futuristic things like the "Nurses Assistant Power Suit," which gives the wearer extra lifting power.

We're introducing a new Upfront feature as well this month. "Switched On" (page 6), where people tell us what it's like to really use the gadgets or services we so often write about, will appear occasionally in the magazine. Got a good story involving use of the latest technology? Drop us a line.

Finally, we must say goodbye to copy editor extraordinaire Shannon Morales, who left our team at the end of November to concentrate her attention on the new life in her tummy (as we went to print, little Shafer was still enjoying himself in there). Shannon worked through her eighth month of pregnancy, putting up with crowded trains and the unwillingness of people to give her a seat (let's just say the spirit of volunteerism is not alive and well on Japan's trains), and she still churned through copy at an amazing pace. Shannon, thanks a million.

We also have the pleasure of introducing our new editor, J Mark Lytle, who readers may recognize from his frequent bylines in J@pan Inc (most recently, "Christmas Shopping," December 2001, page 33). Mark has been freelancing for various technology publications in the UK and also was the features editor for Computeractive magazine, the biggest-selling computer magazine in the UK. We're thrilled to get an editor and writer of his caliber on board.

-- Bruce Rutledge

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