We first visited Japan in 2012 and fell in love with a country full of amazing food, friendly people and beautiful scenery. So we were very excited to return at the end of 2015 to spend Christmas and New Year in one of our favourite cities in the world – Tokyo. Before we left, we researched places we could visit to give something back to the community over the festive period. We found this surprisingly difficult – partly due to the language barrier and partly because Japan ‘lacks a tradition of private philanthropy’ (The Economist). Finding social enterprises to visit was a challenge.

So, when we read about Second Harvest Japan (2HJ), Japan’s first and only nationwide food bank, we were really excited to pop along and see the amazing work that they do. Unfortunately, we were too late to sign up to help out over the Christmas period (shifts can book out weeks in advance), but CEO Charles McJilton was kind enough to invite us to 2HJ’s headquarters for a chat about food waste in Japan and the work of 2HJ.

Poverty in Japan

When you think of Japan, poverty is not something that immediately springs to mind. However, despite being the world’s third richest country, poverty is an increasing issue in Japan. In Tokyo, levels of  homelessness have recently reached a historic low, but it is the hidden nature of poverty which is of greatest concern. Throughout Japan, it is estimated that 1 in 6 people (about 20 million people) live in relative poverty. 2.3 million people in Japan lack food security, meaning that they do not have access to safe and nutritious food. Of these people, only 0.2% are homeless. The remaining people are elderly (70%), single mothers (20%) and foreigners (9.8%). These people can remain hidden from authorities and are at risk of kodokushi – a lonely death.

Sleeping rough in Tokyo. Image credit: Jim Fischer
Sleeping rough in Tokyo. Image credit: Jim Fischer

In February 2012, a family of three were found dead in their apartment in Saitama, a city just north of Tokyo. Their fridge was empty. It is believed that they died of starvation. It has been suggested that their deaths were, in part, due to the fact that many Japanese people are too ashamed to ask for help. This tragedy is one of many that highlights the potentially deadly consequences of social deprivation in Japan.

Food Waste in Japan

What makes stories like this even more devastating is that there is more than enough food in Japan to make sure no one goes hungry. We were shocked to learn the extent of food waste in Japan. Japan’s annual food loss is somewhere between 5 and 8 million tons – an amount equal to the country’s annual rice production.  3 to 4 million tons of this is destroyed by the food industry. Charles explained to us that this is due to the incredibly high food standards in Japan. Unless food is ‘perfect, pristine and presentable’, it will never make it to the consumer.

Japan takes a belt, suspenders and extra suit approach to their food safety. In the United States…3,000 people died from food borne illnesses last year…In Japan, it was only 3. To get to 3, you have to have insanely high standards for your food. – Charles McJilton, CEO Second Harvest Japan

However, this food is perfectly safe to eat. Early in 2016, France bought in legislation to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying food. Instead, they must now give food to charities or use it as animal feed.  We hope that Japan, and many other countries, will one day follow France’s example.

Second Harvest Japan – Japan’s first and only nationwide food bank

Japan lacks the food safety net that can be found in other developed countries. In Tokyo, it is estimated that there are under 15 locations where people in need can access emergency food supplies. One organisation that is trying to change this is Second Harvest Japan (2HJ)  – Japan’s first nationwide food bank. Under the railway lines in Asakusa-bashi, a few minutes walk away from the bright lights and loud noises of the Akihabara gaming district, 2HJ and its team of volunteers work tirelessly to ensure that food reaches the people who really need it.

Second Harvest Japan aims to create a Food Safety Net in Japan. In order to do so, we deliver food to children’s homes, single-mother shelters, centers for the disabled as well as many other welfare organizations and individuals in need. In order to deliver enough food to those who lack food security, 2HJ cooperates with food manufacturers and other companies and hopes to use food to create new partnerships between corporations and the community. – 2HJ’s purpose, Second Harvest Japan

Second Harvest Japan Food Bank Tokyo Charles McJilton
Second Harvest Japan founder and CEO, Charles McJilton.

Food disposal costs companies money. 2HJ offers food companies a way of reducing their food waste costs, while ensuring that this surplus food finds its way to the people who need it. They do this through three main activities: a weekly soup kitchen; a pantry; and food-banking.

Every Saturday, in the beautiful and bustling Ueno Park, 2HJ run the Harvest Kitchen – a soup kitchen which distributes hot, nutritious meals to people in need. Every week, between 300 and 400 meals are given out. This takes a lot of work and volunteers are needed for food preparation, food distribution and the big clean up back at the warehouse. It is easy to see why this is 2HJ’s most popular volunteering activity.  It gives people the opportunity to not only meet other volunteers from all over the world, but also to connect with some of 2HJ’s recipients. Also, with a multi-lingual team of volunteers, language is not a barrier – all volunteers need to do is book a shift and turn up with an apron and a smile.

Second Harvest Japan Food Bank Tokyo Inside
Inside the food preparation area of Second Harvest Japan, in Akihibara

Although the Harvest Kitchen is 2HJ’s most visible activity, Charles was keen to emphasise that most of the work that 2HJ does takes place at the headquarters, where they run a pantry and a foodbank. This work is helping to create the food safety net that Japan currently lacks.

The Harvest Pantry uses donations from food companies to create emergency grocery packages for households that may not be able to access food.  These packages can either be picked up from the warehouse or, for those who are unable to reach the warehouse, packages can be delivered via courier. In 2014, 2HJ distributed over 9,000 grocery packages to households in need of help. 2HJ also run a mobile pantry, which can bring these food packages to designated locations throughout the country. In the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the mobile pantry made 225 trips to the Tohuku region, delivering food and water to over 25,000 homes and bringing hope to those whose lives had been devastated by the disaster.

Second Harvest Japan Food Bank Tokyo Stacking
Image credit: Second Harvest Japan

2HJ’s core activity is food banking, where donated food is collection and distributed in bulk to other welfare agencies, including orphanages, women’s shelters, faith based groups and other regional food banks. This enableds 2HJ to get surplus food to the highest number of people. In 2014, volunteer drivers donated nearly 32,000 hours of their times to ensure that the equivalent of 1,325,000 meals were distributed to people in welfare agencies who may have otherwise gone hungry. 2HJ currently support 260 organisations and it is likely that this list will continue to grow.

The work that 2HJ does really is incredible and has undoubtedly saved lives. If you are in Tokyo, and have a morning or afternoon to spare, please consider giving some of your time to help out with their activities. It is such a worthwhile cause.

The challenges of food banking in Japan

While chatting to Charles, it was clear that running an organisation like 2HJ in Japan can be challenging. He explained how ‘officials tend to regard NPOs as meddlesome amateurs‘ and therefore, it can be difficult to build lasting relationships with companies. However, 2HJ take a very business like approach to their work and this has allowed them to develop equal and trusting relationships with food companies. They do not solicit food companies asking for donations, but instead offer them a way of saving money, increasing staff morale, fulfilling their corporate social responsibility and providing them with free marketing. This creates a business partnership, rather than an unequal recipient – donor relationship. This is a fundamental value for 2HJ and allows them to develop equal and trusting relationships with both their partner companies and food recipients.

The biggest challenge for 2HJ is not receiving food donations. Instead, it is identifying and locating households who are in need of help. Recipients are identified through various agencies who work with 2HJ; however, there are still thousands of families who are at risk of being overlooked. Charles explained that this is mainly due to an unique aspect of Japanese culture – the concept of ‘meiwaku’. To be meiwaku means to be a burden, and in a country where ideas of guilt and shame run deep in it’s ethos, this is something that Japanese people want to avoid. Therefore, people may choose not to ask for help even if they and their families are starving.

I don’t want to be meiwaku because I don’t want to inconvenience others. The way to live is not to complain, but rather to focus on my own contributions. – Japan Times

This is a significant problem for 2HJ. In 2014, there were about 6,000 pick ups from the Harvest Pantry. Charles estimates that this is around 4,000 of the 1 million families that may need their help. For him, this is not enough and he accepts that the problem (and the solution) lies with 2HJ. They need to spread their message in a way which is sympathetic to the unique Japanese culture and which tells people that asking for help when they are starving is not being ‘meiwaku’.

Second Harvest Japan Food Bank Tokyo Working
Image credit: Second Harvest Japan

How can you help?

Volunteer your time –  If you are travelling to Tokyo, please think about giving up some time to help out – 2HJ have a range of volunteering opportunities and you don’t need to speak Japanese! You can help prepare and distribute food at the soup kitchen in Ueno Park or help pack and give out food packages to those in need directly from the Second Harvest offices.

Donate money – 2HJ rely 100% on donations. For every 1,000 yen (approx £6) donated, Second Harvest are able to distribute 30,000 yen (approx £175) of food to those in need.

Donate food – Second Harvest accept food donations from individuals, as well as companies. Please make sure the food is unopened, the packaging is in good condition and that the expiration date is clearly labelled.

Spread the word – Second Harvest really are doing a great job, so tell people about them! On their website, you can buy t-shirts and magnets. Or you can add a banner to your website.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Brooke of Passport Couture 10 May, 2016 Subscriber

    I was inspired and touched by your support of this organization as well as being informed about homelessness in Japan. It’s unfortunate that pride and honor stop many people from offering help and asking for help, but I’m glad there is an organization doing what it can to address that.

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