Tokyo Interview #21 Charles E. McJilton

Tokyo Interview

I'm really happy to see you.

September 3 (Wed), 2008

#21 Charles E. McJilton

CEO/Executive Director of Second Harvest Japan
(He's been in Japan since '91)


We believe that if there's
a relationship, the food will naturally come.

Do you know a "food bank"? It's an organization which collects food items from food companies or individuals and distributes them to non-profit agencies involved in local emergency food programs. Then those programs provide immediate hunger relief to individuals and families in need.
It originated in the United States and it's prevalent in America. About 40 years after the first food bank in the world was formed in the US, Charles E. McJilton organized the first food bank here in Japan.
It's not well-known yet among Japanese and quite a new type of system to them. It seems that this is really an epoch-making thing but he and Second Harvest Japan, the first food bank in Japan, have faced difficulties so far.

*Interview at Second Harvest Japan (Asakusa-bashi, Tokyo)

First food bank in Japan.

Food-banking started in Japan in January 2000, when a group of representatives from different mobile soup kitchens providing food to people in need got together and talked about creating a means to collect food more efficiently. That was the beginning.
In 2002, we incorporated as the first bona fide food bank in Japan. And we changed our name to Second Harvest in 2004. We had a very long name both English and Japanese and we made this one name, "Second Harvest".

*More details of their history... Click here.

There were many people who had the idea but this is the first group to actually take ideas into reality, but we actually were the first to put thoughts and desires into action and created the first food bank that collects food from companies, from individuals, even from farmers and to distributes it to different agencies.
The motivation for starting this is everybody who is involved in some type of welfare work here understands that items are thrown away needlessly every year. I'm one of those and as I mentioned that in first two-year, we were a bit of a coalition which tried to decide how to operate.
And out of that came an idea to make a real bona fide food bank to provide food for anybody in need. That's where our name our slogan "Food for all people" came from. Everyone provides food to anybody in need within Japan who can use the food responsibly. That's really where our I came from.
This is the very first food bank here in Japan. People don't know anything about what it is. So we have to do the job of explaining what the system is and also do the business of, the system of collecting food and we choose people in need.

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Slogans put on the ceiling of the office of Second Harvest Japan.

A Japanese slum.

I was growing up in my family and there were some brothers and sisters along with other foster kids. So food is always an issue.
I came to Japan first in 1984 with the US military. I was stationed over here for two years.
I came back permanently in 1991 as a research student of Sophia University. Before I came, I sent a letter to a Jesuit priest asking to be introduced to a religious community at that time. I was considering to become a Catholic priest. So I lived with some Catholic brothers in Sanya, an area of crowded, cheap rooming houses where day workers live in Tokyo, for one year. After that, we've moved into an apartment about a block away but we were still in the same area. That's why I got involved in Sanya, I got involved in homeless daily labor movement.
My undergraduate degree has nothing to do with welfare, social institutions or something like that. Totally different. But that's where it took me to that area.
Before I went, I was told that I was going to the slums of Tokyo. I have traveled the different countries where slums actually do exist so I was surprised at something like that could exist. To be fair, Sanya is not a slum in many different ways. But it is in one of the poorest sections of Tokyo so I was very surprised to see that area and see men lying on the ground, sleeping on the ground, things like this. But I took an immediate liking to the neighborhood. It was very alive there so I got to liking it, inside stay.
My experience, there is always coming home, leaving, people always greet me, say hello or something to me. But in other parts of Tokyo, that won't happen. So it was quite different.

There are many cheap rooming houses in Sanya.
Nowadays many foreign backpackers come to stay.

Japan is so far behind in NGO/NPO area.

The non-profit/NGO sector here is less developed than the Philippines, less developed than that of Bangladesh, less developed than that of India in terms of the number of qualified staff, in terms of impact on social policy, in terms of its relationship with the government and other institutions. Japan is so far behind in that area. Only within the last 10 years, Japan has created the law to recognize institutions as legal entities. So 10 years ago, an organization like ourselves could not exist as a legal entity. So it makes a big difference.
In terms of funding, if you have the same idea funding-wise, money is not available. United States, 85% of funding comes from individuals and each donation is very small amount, usually average about 75 dollars. In Japan, the average donation is, per household, about 35 dollars for year donation.
In United States, it's about 1,400 dollars. So it's quite different funding base for those NGOs. There are approximately 30,000 NGO/NPOs registered right now officially in Japan. Out of 30,000, less than 5,000 have paid staff. With the average number of people working at that institution is about1.5. This comes back to being how underdeveloped. It's not a reflection upon Japanese society, that it's a bad or good Japanese society.

20 million tons of food is thrown away a year in Japan.

The reality is, in Japan, the poverty rate is within 15% right now. It ranks No.4 in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. For the elderly, poverty rate is actually 22%. Poor people here do exist and it's growing.
At the same time, probably nearly one third of all available safe food is thrown away. One third, which is ironic that Japan imports 60% of its food. Many time we hear in the media that Japan's food self-sufficiency is only 40%. What people often don't talk about is that one third of all the food is thrown away.
In 2002, 20 million tons of food was thrown away in Japan. On the other hand, world wide food aid was only 8 million tons. So nearly two and half times the amount of food is thrown away in Japan as is given out as aid, It's a reflection on how prosper Japan is, how wealthy Japan is. It's able to import and to throw away and dispose this amount of food.
On the other hand, it does reflect that its impact on the environment because all the food which is thrown away has to be burnt. Thousands of containers have to be disposed somehow and it costs on a company, it costs on a consumer. So everywhere along the line it creates a cost and an impact.

Miracle of food bank.

What a food bank tries to do in some ways is to recover that food again. Not expired food. Food is still safe to be eaten and I get it out to people in need. In 2007, we saved companies' 35 million yen but about 350,000 dollars on disposal and return fees. At the same time, we are able to deliver 180 million yen (about US$1.8 million) back out into the community. If they would have to buy the same amount of food, it would have cost them 180 million yen. So both sides win.
(*In 2008, Second Harvest Japan saved companies about 85 million yen and delivered approximately 480 million yen in food)
The money they saved, they can use it for different programs for children, they can use it to hire staff. For other groups, they can use it for scholarships. All on a product that's gonna go to waste. That's the miracle of food banking. The environment wins because no impact on environment. Companies win because they are saving money. Welfare institutions win because they are not having to buy food, they can save money.

About 60 companies including Heinz, Costco
and Haagen Dazs support Second Harvest's activities.

We have one foot in the business community, one foot in the
welfare community.

Food banking is unusual as a non-profit organization because there are two sides.
First of all, there's the business side. When you're dealing with a food manufacturer, food importer, or even a store, they're concerned about liability. If someone becomes sick by drinking or eating their food, they're concerned about the image of their product. There are other concerns, too. There's a product which is not going to be resold. That's a legitimate business concern. So we have to deal with them as a business.
The second side is a welfare side. As a food bank, it's important to address both of those. We are unique in sense that other non-profits don't help businesses make money or save money. We have one foot in the business community, one foot in the welfare community.
My personal goal is that anybody who comes and gets involved in Second Harvest and encounters us will walk away say, "I have an different idea of what the non-profit is." That's my really hope. In Japan, most people have an image of an NPO being like a hobby or something like just make people feel good. It's not a problem but what I would like to say is, "No, there's a different object, there's a different place and different roles for NPOs in society. "Oh, that's a different kind of NPO" or "A different potential for NPO. There's a different way to do business."

Second Harvest has its own warehouse.
Tons of food are brought here to people in need.

We are not trying to help people.

What I do not want is that people say, "You're just doing a good thing. It's OK." I don't agree with that. A lot of NPOs don't create a business plan, those NPOs don't create a financial plan, except for when they say, "I need money."
We have never asked for money. I've never gone to companies and said, "Please give me money." What I have done is to create relationships with different companies. They've said to me, "Charles, I have ex-amount of money. How can you use that?" "Charles, if I was going to give you this money, what would you do?"
It's not an issue of pride, it's an issue of relationship. First we create a relationship, we believe out of that, this is also true with our food, with food companies, we always tell them when we negotiate for the first time. "We don't want your food. We want a relationship." We believe that if there's a relationship, the food will naturally come. That's where we place the emphasis. We emphasize the fact we want a relationship first rather than food or money.
We are a non-profit and companies can't gain any financial reward from us. But they can get the satisfaction of the reward that they know they're doing something for society.
We are not thinking we are trying to help people. We are just thinking it's "cool" that food over here that's gonna go to waste but there are people here that can use it. How can we get the food from A to B? We don't think of it as trying to help people.

Infrastructure to support the weak is nonexistent in Japan.

In Japan, people are not starving to death necessarily compared to other countries. But certainly the amount of pay that people are making and the number of part-timers is increasing which brings all sorts of different problems to it. In that, you see a big change but you have to understand that in Japan, the infrastructure to support those people in need is practically nonexistent.
For example, if you are used to the word "poor person" and if you're a single mother, elderly or any kind of a low-income family in need of emergency food, there is no place in Japan for you to go. None, zero. That's an incredible statement to make out of a population of over 100 million people, there's no one place for anybody to go for emergency food. We are the closest thing to that, but even us, very limited.
We don't know how many people are really in need because there's no place for these people to go. If you look at the number of private shelters for women in need here, for example, for women fleeing from domestic violence, fleeing from prostitution, fleeing from dangerous situations a place for them to go and stay, you'll be surprised how few there are and how small they are.
We always get calls from individuals saying, "Please help me, please help me!" We get phone calls saying, "Please send me food! I need help!"

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Many, many "thank you" letters from children!

Companies should expect something back from NPO.

Whether you work in the government, whether you work in a business, whether you work in a non-profit, within society, there's the three different areas, three different roles they can be played. My ideal area is that none is better or worse than the other.
Each has a different function to play, different roles to play within a structure. Neither A nor B is better. Both of them are decided in this structure. This is how we decided what's best for us.
And I hope one day Japan would be able to come to that and NPO sector would grow more to say that just because they are doing a "good thing", not better.
Government can do what businesses and non-profits can't do. Businesses can do what government and non-profits can't do. There is sometimes overlap. Non-profits and government working on public policy. In our case, non-profits and businesses working together on social problems. Government and businesses and non-profits working altogether to create a financial, social and economic policy that helps everybody.
But you mentioned earlier, "obstacles". I found in Japan that businesses quite often don't believe that NPOs can be anything but organizations that do something "good". They don't have any expectations on NPOs. For example, business gives NPO money and they say at least we are doing something good. That's not a good reason. You should expect something back.
Between government and NPOs, there is still a lot mistrust on both sides. The government believes, "We know how to run society. Trust us." But NPOs say, "The whole problem in society begins with the government."

"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why.
I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."

In our case, the government is saying, "We want to reduce the amount of waste." One of the alternatives is food bank but if companies give - I won't say "too much" but over certain limit - they may have to pay taxes. That seems to be crazy to me.
For example, if I have a hundred kilos of rice and I say I want to give that to people who are hungry. But then I have to give the government 20,000 yen (about US$200) to help these people. It's insane.
We can 100% confirm that all this food isn't being sold. If this is sold, the government says "We want taxes." But we have to pay taxes to do something good.
However we don't fight or argue with government because that's not our position. There's a good quote we often use from Robert F. Kennedy. It says, "There's a someone who looks at ways what things and see the way things are, and say why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not."
Meaning, some people look at the world and say, "Why is this problem...", "Why is that problem...". That's not the Second Harvest. We look at things that never were and say, "If we can do this, wouldn't that be cool?" "If we can provide this food to people, wouldn't that be cool?" That is really who we are. It's just a "cool factor". That's what we would like to focus on.
Life is too short to be thinking about "Why we can't this, why we can't that".


What is food bank or Second Harvest to you?

It is my opportunity to give back to Japan.

Everyday I come to work, everyday I do what I do here. It's my opportunity to "vote". I'm voting for a better society.
I want to live in a society where, if there's food available and people who need it, we can provide them infrastructure to get it from point A to point B. I want to give a great place to my daughter.

Japan is where I'm here to support her.

What is Japan to you?

As long as I'm in Japan, my society or
my country where I live is Japan.

Ironically the more I understood Japanese, the more I understood the bad points. But I wouldn't be able to do this job if I didn't speak Japanese.
And I wouldn't be able to really understand people and things at a more deeper level if I didn't understand the language.
Anybody or any situation, the more deeper you go, the more you see the good and bad.

But on balance, Japan has far more good things.

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