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Michael Maher King was an ALT in Fukui Prefecture for five years. In 2009 he set up Smile Kids Japan , a non-profit organisation with the aim of encouraging fellow JETs and others to volunteer at their local orphanages in Japan. The organisation has thrived, with over 40 visits currently running in locations across Japan and has been featured in Japan Times and at this year's TEDxTokyo.  In autumn 2011 Mr. Maher King spoke to us about his experiences on the JET Programme and Smile Kids Japan.

How were your 5 years on the JET Programme if you had to sum it up in 100 words?

My five years on the JET Programme have changed the direction of my life, and opened my eyes to a new culture, language and amazing group of people. Prior to university I took a gap year and travelled reasonably extensively but this is only touching the surface when compared to living and working in a new country. I made so many new friends from Japan and all over the world, and had experiences I will never forget. I loved my work, my volunteering, and my social life. It has opened doors and developed me personally in ways I couldn't have imagined.

Why did you apply to the JET Programme?

My first exposure to Japan came before university, when my girlfriend (now wife) and I took a gap-year and travelled around Asia for 6 months. Because of the relative cost of Japan we were only able to stay in Japan for about a week, and we both left feeling we had hardly even touched the surface. Of all the places we visited, Japan and Malaysia were my favourites, and this desire to see and learn more was furthered by making Japanese friends at university. When we were getting near to graduating we started to consider what we wanted to do after university, and we both wanted to go and explore, and in particular try to get under the surface of Japan rather than just skim on the top as a tourist. In addition to the love of Japan a lot of my family are teachers, and coming from a large family I have always loved being with kids. The JET Programme's reputation meant that it was a natural choice and seemed to be a very good fit.

Could you sum up your feelings before departure to Japan?

Before we left for Japan I was a little nervous, but I think that this was a lot less for me than for some others as I was coming with my wife, and I remember thinking wherever we are together, that is home. It meant that more than nerves I was excited. To meet new people, to see what our apartment would be like, to see whether it was really as hot as the guidebooks suggested! The excitement of starting a whole new adventure with my wife was amazing, and definitely meant I came feeling really positive and looking forward to the challenge rather than nerves. I came with no Japanese at all which was something I was apprehensive about but I channelled that into motivation for lots and lots of study!

What was the best part for you about being on the JET Programme?

The people that you meet, both Japanese and from all over the world. To share an experience with them, and work, volunteer and drink with them all has really formed me as a person. The chances to do something that you couldn't or wouldn't do in your own country, for me orphanage volunteering, are also amazing.

What is Smile Kids Japan?

Smile Kids Japan is an information and support non-profit organisation that I set up with some friends to try to promote awareness of orphanages in Japan, and show people that live here how they can set up regular visits to their local orphanage.

Our aims are to:

  • Promote awareness of orphanages across Japan, especially amongst the foreign communities.
  • Encourage these communities to set up regular volunteer visits.
  • Help show these volunteers how this is possible, with hints, tips, and an overview of everything from setting up the first meeting to keeping up volunteer motivation.
  • Ultimately we are aiming for every orphanage in Japan to have a two hour visit once a month.

We started at one orphanage in Fukui Ken and are now setting up regular visits at our third orphanage here, and want to replicate the success we have had here all across Japan. 

What inspired you to set up Smile Kids Japan?

I suppose that the simple answer to this is seeing how the kids at the orphanage I visit developed and the satisfaction I got from knowing that I have made a small difference to their lives.

When we started visiting in Fukui I imagined it was going to be a logistical nightmare, but with an introduction to the home from a teacher that my wife is friends with, who taught some of the children from the orphanage, it turned out to be very simple. I had prepared for all sorts of questions and all sorts of scenarios, but the director of the orphanage greeted us warmly and simply asked how often and with how many people we would like to volunteer. On the first visit we went in armed with lots of games and ideas, and had lots of fun with the kids.  Over the last few years the relationship has grown closer than I could have ever imagined, and it dawned on me after we started our second regular visit in Fukui, that if we were able to do this so could anyone else.

So, a group of us got together and wrote out the website content, translated it and uploaded it, and worked to think about how we could raise awareness of the project across Japan.  A lot of these ideas we haven't fully explored yet, but it has still exploded far more quickly than I could have imagined.  This is largely because of the initial team, the Fukui Jet group, and AJET who have supported us from day one in every way they can.  The other key reason to the speed that we have spread across the country is simply the enormous desire of foreigners that live in Japan to help make a difference, and to get involved in their local community.  I think many people, Japanese and foreign were looking for a way that they could volunteer, and this particular volunteer work compliments what a lot of foreigners do in Japan anyway, which is of course work with kids.

Did you have any difficulties in setting up visits to your local orphanages?  If so, how did you overcome them?

Here in Fukui I didn't have any problems for the first two orphanages we started visiting.  I think the key was the introduction from somebody who was known to the staff and valued in the community. 

In other prefectures there have been people who have met with a positive first response, but a reluctance to commit to anything regular from the homes themselves.  I understand this, as of course the homes have to be concerned with the wellbeing of the children, and it takes some time to build up that trust. 

I am also hoping that slowly this will become a little more normal, and I am considering adding a section to the website aimed at the orphanages themselves with references from orphanages with projects running now.

What do you hope to achieve with Smile Kids Japan in the future?

At the moment I am not sure on the best way to move forwards, but one idea is to look for company sponsorship. With the correct backing we could really try and raise awareness of this issue across all Japan, and amongst Japanese people themselves, who in my experience are often unaware of facilities close to their homes.  The orphanages I have worked with in Japan have been amazing places, with fantastic staff, however raising the profile of volunteering, and perhaps even adoption one day, could help make an enormous difference to these children.

Ultimately I would like every orphanage in Japan to have a monthly 2 hour visit from volunteers, and for the children to be able to grow, develop trust with people, and feel loved.

What will happen/ is happening to Smile Kids Japan now you have left Japan?

Smile Kids Japan changed our focus massively following the Tohoku earthquake, and teamed up with Living Dreams.jp, a fantastic Tokyo based NPO who have been working with Tokyo orphanages for over 4 years. We set up the Tohoku Kids Project, Smiles and Dreams, and are still working on this with them. However we are predominantly returning to our focus of getting volunteers into their local orphanages nationwide. The current team running Smile Kids Japan are Anna Ho, Meredith Smith and Avalyn Beare. We are always getting input and ideas from within and outside Japan, and are also always happy to hear from people looking to get involved in organisation. We have been working even more closely than previously with AJET and are also still talking to Universities, although as yet we haven't got any large programmes running with them.

You are currently doing a Masters in modern Japanese studies at Oxford. What's your next step in life?

I am not quite sure! I am toying with a PhD related to the orphanages and the challenges the kids face when leaving the homes, but I am also quite a practical hands on person and I want to get back to working in the field with NGOs to affect change too. Either way it will be fun :)

For more information on Smile Kids Japan, please visit www.smilekidsjapan.org