Hello! As I have mostly focused on my adventures around Tokyo for my last few posts, I’ve decided to delve in to a little more detail about my internship this time. I work with Second Harvest Tokyo in pretty much any capacity that I’m needed. Most days I work in the Pantry in Akihabara where food is sorted and distributed either to people who come to pick up monthly allotments, or into boxes that are trucked out to needy families around Tokyo. I spend my last few hours on Thursdays and Fridays in Second Harvest’s Kids Cafe, which is a space that is a little difficult to explain about. The Kids Cafe is for working parents to come with or drop off their kids for socialization, relaxation, and a chance for the little ones to learn more about the importance of the food they eat and how to cook basic meals. We get kids of varying ages from young babies to elementary school students. I’ve also been able to do a little research for second harvest on other food banks around the world, and help obtain the funding Second Harvest gets from tourists who donate their train cards that still have funds on them.
The Pantry is an interesting place to work both because I get to meet other volunteers from the area and see first-hand those who are food insecure in Tokyo. Many of the regular volunteers are Japanese women, though we do have a few foreign students who volunteer as a way to practice their Japanese, conduct research, and give back to the community. Sometimes the language barrier can be a bit difficult, but it is interesting to meet all of the characters that pass through Second Harvest. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are many foreigners that come to pick up food on distribution days. Some are a part of the small refugee population that resides in Japan, while others have come to work but are unable to afford the cost of living in Tokyo. According to the Second Harvest volunteer coordinator, about one third of the people that come for food pick-up are not Japanese. Those that are Japanese who come in are largely middle-aged to elderly.
To be honest, I find the large number of foreigners coming for food assistance to be surprising. There is a certain culture of almost silent suffering in Japan in which people do not like to ask for assistance, burden others, or feel indebted to others on some level. Because of this, I think it has been hard for Second Harvest to establish itself in Japan among the Japanese. I’ve even had locals with great English comprehension come up to me and ask about my experiences in Japan only to be completely baffled by the concept of a food bank. What’s especially interesting about my Pantry workdays is that they don’t even service the neediest of the food insecure in Japan. In order to qualify for food pickup in Akihabara, one must have an address and obtain authorization from their local government stating they are food insecure. These qualifications completely exclude the homeless, who are often times elderly, unable to work, and prone to mental illness because of their dire situation. While there is food delivery in Ueno Park every Saturday to get food to the homeless, this only reaches a small number of people.
I’ve really enjoyed my time with Second Harvest so far, and the work the organizations does is truly amazing. I think I’ve found it most surprising that the organizations doesn’t distribute food to the homeless in the amounts I thought they would. Going in to my internship, I figured the homeless would be Second Harvest’s largest clientele; however, they are actually the smallest group of people the organization serves. This is something I have found most saddening as many of the homeless cannot work either because of their physical condition, or the fact that they do not have an address to declare on a resume. It is not customary for the homeless to beg for money, or for people to provide money to them, so in the end the homeless are a significant population who are not very well helped. Through my research on the food security of Tokyo, I’ve seen many scholarly articles referencing the deteriorating mental conditions of Japan’s homeless because of their difficult situation. The difficulty in providing for and helping the homeless, even for an organization like Second Harvest, is something I’ve found to be the saddest part of the difficulties of being food insecure in Tokyo.
On a happier note, I do have some more Tokyo adventures to talk about before I sign off for the night. I was able to go to Asakusa after work on Saturday, a local shrine with my host mom and little host sisters for a Shinto health ceremony on Sunday, and Yoyogi Park and Harajuku on Monday. Asakusa’s most popular destination is probably Asakusa Shrine built during the Edo period and (according to a quick Google search) opened in 1649. The shrine is absolutely breathtaking. The gates to enter tower over all the shrine’s visitors, and then there are rows of shops, restaurants, and street vendors that branch off and lead up to the main building. The shrine is a very international setting with people who come from all over the world to view it. Despite this, there were still people in traditional yukata and kimono coming to pray.
The local shrine I went to with my host family was much smaller, but still beautiful as well. While we were there, a Shinto ceremony was taking place that was meant to cleanse the soul and ensure good health through the summer. After the ceremony, my host mom bought my little host sisters and me a Japanese sweet called kuzumochi.
My adventure to Yoyogi Park and Harajuku was also a lot of fun, and two places I highly recommend for any coming to tour the Tokyo area. Yoyogi Park is huge and beautiful with many types of plants, flowers, fountains, and walking paths to explore. Some areas of the park are like being submerged in a forest that grows in the middle of the city. The park also contains Meiji shrine, which is another beautiful Shinto shrine said to house the soul of Emperor Meiji. I stopped by Harajuku briefly after my day in Yoyogi Park for ramen and another visit to a hedgehog cafe. Harajuku is another international setting as it is a major tourist hub and also a major hub for unique fashion trends among the Tokyo youth, and perhaps a bit more refined fashion trends for older shoppers. It was a lot of fun just to people watch as some unique characters are drawn to the area. There is also tons to do in terms of shopping, visiting animal cafes, and finding great eateries.
For those that are looking for great places to put on or check off their Tokyo bucket lists, I would definitely recommend Asakusa, Yoyogi Park, and Harajuku!