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Yoroku: A few words about donation collection boxes

The phrase "charity pot" -- which refers to donation collection boxes -- conjures up images of sashes, uniform caps and attire, the musical accompaniment of trumpets, and cast-iron pots doubling as collection buckets.

    For some reason, this sort of nostalgic scene seems very much at home in futuristic-style cityscapes -- perhaps because of its enduring history that spans more than a century.

    Haiku poet Dakotsu Iida once wrote, "Don't be afraid to place / A silver coin in the charity pot." The donation collection boxes of the Salvation Army -- clearly the stuff of seasonal poetic phrases -- are rooted in the Christmas kettles that first appeared in the United States in 1894 in order to provide relief for unemployed individuals.

    This effort was replicated in Japan toward the end of the Meiji era with collection boxes known as "Toshikoshi zoni" (New Year's rice cake soup). The name was later changed to terms translating as "fundraising pot" and "charity pot," before the present term "shakai nabe," or "social pot," was settled upon in 1921.

    "Please contribute to the charity pot," called out Nobuyoshi Soeda, 84, as he stood in front of the Matsuya department store in Tokyo's Ginza district last week.

    Soeda has been volunteering in this capacity for nearly 70 years, since just after the end of World War II. He used to play a heavy, low-pitched wind instrument -- but became unable to carry it around after breaking his foot five years ago.

    "I fell down in a corridor," he says cheerfully. "You know, the so-called 'elderly corridor phenomenon.'"

    Social pots have been set up in 11 locations in Tokyo alone, with a total of over 40 nationwide, in order to provide direct assistance to those living in poverty. Recently, however, collection boxes have been cropping up with suspicious origins -- thereby embroiling the legitimate efforts in controversy.

    Permission for the Salvation Army to set up their pots near the underground west exit of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo this year has been denied. Representatives were told that complaints had been received about such donation collection activities, and it was impossible to give special permission exclusively to the Salvation Army.

    While the history of donation culture in Japan remains limited, local tax schemes whereby a portion of local taxes may be directed toward the locality of one's choice have recently been sharply increasing in popularity. Because these come along with fancy goods that are sent back to donors in return, in addition to a reduced level of taxes, the amount of funds collected this year is expected to exceed last year's tally by nearly four times.

    If the point of these donation collections becomes that of receiving something in return, however, long-established initiatives do not stand much of a chance.

    An older woman recently folded up a 10,000 yen note in Ginza and placed it into a social pot in Ginza. Her name will not be publicized; nor will she receive a tax deduction for her donation.

    Her reward? It will be found in the pots that will warm up the hearts of those in need this season. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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