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Gov't faces criticism for 'mobilizing' students as volunteers for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Volunteers cheer for athletes at a test event for the Rio Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2015. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The government is facing criticism for effectively instructing universities and technical colleges to forgo classes during the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 in a bid to encourage students to volunteer for the international athletic meet.

The Olympics and Paralympics will be held from July 24 through Sept. 6, 2020. But many universities usually schedule their classes and end-of-semester examinations from late July to early August and there are concerns that many students need to go to school rather than to Olympic venues for volunteer work.

It was against this backdrop that a directive was issued by the Japan Sports Agency and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology on July 26 that universities and technical colleges can start their spring semesters early or hold classes on national holidays so that students can be free to volunteer. The directive requested schools to cooperate, saying that serving as volunteers at the athletic events "is meaningful from the viewpoint of promoting the smooth transition of students, who will serve as pillars of society in the future, toward social roles."

But not everyone is welcoming the government's approach. A male student who attended a briefing on volunteer work by the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee on July 31 at Sophia University in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, said he wants to enjoy the opportunity and build a better character through the experience, but expressed concern about changing class schedules just for the events.

"There are many other meaningful volunteer programs, but why are only the Olympics and Paralympics given priority? I don't see any clear reason for that decision other than the fact that they are national events," said the student, who was among some 400 participants at the briefing for university officials and students.

Meanwhile, an 18-year-old female student sounded more positive. "It is a rare opportunity, and I hope to experience a lot. I want to study hard so that I will be able to speak English in two years," she said with eagerness. She nevertheless complained about the long hours required for the volunteer work, saying she wants the organizers to be flexible to accommodate her busy schedule of working part time and attending two club activities.

The organizing committee has signed cooperation agreements with about 800 universities and junior colleges nationwide, and plans to have briefings at 13 universities about volunteering before it will start to accept volunteers in mid-September.

Some universities have started making adjustments to accommodate the government's request for student volunteers. Among major colleges in Tokyo, Meiji University has announced it would move forward its academic schedule and hold classes during successive holidays in May. Rikkyo University also decided to end its classes and exams by the eve of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

But an official at a private university was not happy, saying that volunteerism is about the initiatives of individuals eager to commit themselves. "Under the current arrangement, all students and teachers, regardless of their willingness, will be forced to take part, directly or indirectly, at the cost of giving up their own holidays."


There are two types of volunteers for the Tokyo event: games volunteers, which the organizing committee is accepting, and city volunteers, to be organized by municipal governments. Some 80,000 games volunteers will guide visitors at venues, drive cars to transport games officials, attend to foreign VIPs and assist with doping tests. Some of these tasks are rather demanding. City volunteers, who will number some 30,000 in Tokyo, will support tourists and others at airports, railway stations and tourist attractions.

City volunteers are requested to work for around five hours a day for at least five days, while games volunteers have to be available for some eight hours per day for at least 10 days or more.

A briefing is held in Tokyo in July for potential volunteers for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. (Mainichi)

Associate professor Yuji Ishizaka of Nara Women's University, a specialist in sports sociology, is critical of the current arrangement promoted by the government and organizing committee. "Accepting students who want to take part on their own is no problem, but some universities are giving credits for this volunteer work. Students can be a popular choice for volunteer work because they can serve for long hours on weekdays. If universities that try to please the organizing committee compete to gather students and if companies hire students with Olympic volunteer experience, students would effectively be forced to take part."

Ishizaka also questioned the management of a massive commercial event like the Olympics that is dependent on volunteers. "Some volunteer work is a full-time job because you have to take part for long hours and should have special skills such as speaking foreign languages. Students are not convenient tools to hold the games cheaply."

Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic volunteers will receive uniforms as well as food and commuting allowances, but they have to pay for lodging on their own. How much would it cost to hire someone for a similar assignment?

Paying 10,000 yen in daily wages to all 80,000 games volunteers for 10 days each would cost 8 billion yen, which is less than 1 percent of the total 1.35 trillion yen cost for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

But professor Hidenori Tomozoe of Waseda University, a sports ethics researcher, said more of his students appear to be willing to serve as volunteers in the games and are welcoming class schedule adjustments. Some youngsters he teaches at local universities said they want to join even if they have to pay for lodging out of their own pocket, according to Tomozoe.

"As globalization is spreading, the experience will certainly be a meaningful one," Tomozoe said about the volunteer work. "You can have a wider exchange with people from here and abroad when you are serving as volunteers on your own initiative, not as a part-time worker. It is important that universities make efforts to accommodate the wishes of their students."

But even Tomozoe pointed out that forced mobilization is not a good idea. "Conditions vary from university to university. Each school should make its own judgment by evaluating the impact on academic performance and the willingness of students," he said. "Students these days tend to place priority on their own feelings. I don't think dragging them into this will work."

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Wada, General Digital News Center)

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