Living with: Volunteerism

“Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”

                                   -  Mahatma Gandhi


Tomoaki-TsugawaIn a country that founded the concept of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has known to be a society that believed in and lived by communal volunteerism.  It is not an alien concept in our villages where farmers help each other build houses, irrigation canals, and even till each other’s fields.  It is perhaps in giving off ourselves for the benefit of the community, where the concept of the “gross national happiness” or “collective happiness” came from.  After all there is a saying in Buddhism that to be truly happy we should practice compassion and giving, something that was so interwoven into our way of life.  This may have changed or evolved as society modernized, and the system or spirit of such volunteerism may have indeed broken down as people moved into the urban areas to live more individual focused lives.  In recent years, however, we have seen increasingly how we can organize ourselves to volunteer and give back to community as our people in the villages have always done.  The examples of doing this have come from both within and from outside Bhutan.

Tomoaki Tsugawa may not be Bhutanese, but he has spent more than 20 years of his life as a volunteer of which a larger part, 15 years of it has been spent volunteering in Bhutan.Today, he continues to serve as a volunteer, albeit as an expert, with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) under a home ministry project titled Local Government and Decentralization Project (LGDP).

Recently he was conferred the Japanese Foreign minister’s award in appreciation of his long and continued services in countries less prosperous than his own.  Mr. Tsugawa also spent 5 years as a volunteer in the African nations of Malawi and Uganda.

Tsugawa who first came to Bhutan in 1983 as a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) worked for two years from 1983-1985as a civil engineer in the Dept. of Industries and mines.  After that he spent two and half years between 1987 and 1989 as a JICA expert working as a lecturer of civil engineering in the Royal Bhutan Polytechnic in Deothang.Three years through the years 1991 to 1994 he was the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) coordinator in the JICA Bhutan Office.

His latest sojourn is in its ninth year since returning in 2004 when he was once again designated as the JICA expert in the LGDPproject supported by JICA.

So what drives Tsugawa’s passion for volunteerism and the zeal to work away from his homeland?

He believes that to do good work, people can work anywhere in the world and it is not necessary to work only in one’s home country. What is important for Mr. Tsugawa though, is that one should stay with ones family.

Perhaps that is why he brought his family, his wife, two sons and a daughter,to Bhutan through the years 1991 till 1994.  He worked as the JOCV coordinator at that time.“Most Japanese don’t want to leave Japan but some don’t mind working outside Japan. I’m a little different from other Japanese; I want to do some challenging work. I am proud of my home country Japan and love it as my country. But some Japanese have to work outside Japan for Japan. In my case, work for Bhutan for Japan,” he says smiling.

Having been in Bhutan for a good long period he has many friends here, he says if he were to go to Japan right now he won’t have as many people he’d know compared to Bhutan.“Important is… how many people I know. If I go to Japan now, I don’t know so many Japanese,” says Tsugawa.

Japanese people are known for their punctuality, their excellent time-management skills and drive for excellence in anything.And therefore it remains an eager question as to how this man put up almost a decade in a country where timing and schedules are not essentially adhered to, and professionalism in the work place is not necessarily a strong trait.

One would think that his tolerance and patience would have exhausted after all these years and he may have actually joined the pack to suit the Bhutanese majority’s ‘definition’ of punctuality.  But he says punctuality is very important for Japanese wherever they may be. They are strict on it because for them ‘the promise’ is very important and so whether he is in Japan or Africa or Bhutan, he never swerved from discipline in the work place.

“If I promise I will come at 3 o clock then I must come because once we miss that promise, once we break that promise, whole trust and reliability is gone and I lose face. And next time they won’t trust me, they won’t believe me,” he says. One can only hope that the Bhutanese counterparts who worked with Tsugawa lived up to their end of such punctuality.

“For Japanese, they are taught since they are small kids in schools and at home by parents that ‘once we promise we must keep that promise.’ If we lose it, we lose everything.”

In Bhutan he has experienced now and then that people give a particular time to show up but mostly show up half-an-hour later or even a full hour late.“Informing is important in this case whether you show up late or don’t show up.” However, most Bhutanese he observed failed to do that even.  But being the person he is – to have lived in Bhutan for 15 years after all, “Maybe they are shy, guilty etc. but Bhutanese can learn more on that.”

On the flipside, maybe Tsugawa learned something about the middle path and about letting go from his experiences in Bhutan. He feels thatJapanese society is so strict sometimes that there is absolutely no leeway.  Certain small things, he feels could be forgiven. And this is one reason why he likes this aspect of the Bhutanese environment.  There is always room for excuses.

“It shouldn’t be too strict. Maybe in between Japan and Bhutan there could be a middle path which will be the best way,” he concluded.

Over the years Mr. Tsugawa has learned a great deal about Bhutanese culture and observed carefully the changes the country has been through.  This seasoned volunteertakes pride in having witnessed development work in the country’s remotest pockets of Bhutan.

“I have been in Bhutan more than 15 years. I know the history of development. I have seen how rapidly Bhutan has developed, and the changes in people’s lives,” he says.

He says one way it’s good Bhutan developed so fast and so well but on the other hand“there is a gap between the rich and poor, there is a gap between the town and village, there’s a gap between urban and rural areas. I think you should fill up those gaps in the near future otherwise many young people will move from rural to urban areas. I think that’s not a very healthy tendency for the country.”He added, “It’s not only Bhutan, all the countries in the world grapple with this issue of trying to address the rural-urban migration issues.”

It would seem that a developed nation like Japan would be saved this trend of rural-urban migration, but apparently opportunity seekers are the same anywhere; they look for the better version of the better version. Out there it is especially the youth who still move around big cities in search for better prospects.

While in Bhutan Tsugawa spent time in Bhutan’s remote outskirts and says the government has worked hard in bridging this gap through infrastructure development.  He observed the construction of so many farm roads and bridges, electricity and even hydro projects to the remotest pockets.“But young people still want to move toward the towns,” he said, which means more had to be done to balance the disparity in ways of life.  Places likeLhuentse, Zhemgang or Trashigang have good roads, good water supply, good housing facilities but for the youth they still prefer to move to the towns, he said.  The reasons for that,he thinks, are because opportunities are more readily available in the capital to pursue higher studies, avail trainings and skilleddevelopment programs abroad.  It was also the easier and more convenient way of life for young people.  He has, however, also noticed that not all Bhutanese youth desire the same thing.  A few, he said, were remaining in their villages and districts and trying to make a life as entrepreneurs, and exploring different and ideas to make a living.  These people have to be supported, he said.

Tsugawa thinks that one way to resolve this imbalance would be to mechanize farming or find new ways to generate income in the rural areas.Basically, to come up with a means to attract youth to return to villages, or help those who are already living there to stay there.Tsugawa says he is appreciative of government’s recent announcementunder the 11th Five Year Plan to try and send 30,000 grads to work abroad to places like Australia, Singapore, Canada, Japan, Thailand to find jobs.



Having lived in both worlds for sufficient number of years to observe the ways of life and the economic trends he said that Bhutanese were too dependent on outside help.

“It’s not a good sign and many young graduates, almost 95% of them know this fact but no one decides to do anything about it, not even think of doing anything on that.”  Although one can’t compare Bhutan to Japan, he said there were some lessons that could be learned.  Japan started all its internationally acclaimed brands from small and humble beginnings but with disciplined and hard work with no international assistance.

He believes Bhutan can also start something of its own and not always be dependent on help.“Thirty yrs ago when I came here, ‘yes’ Bhutan needed help, very few graduates but now there are so many educated graduates,” he says. “Even in the villages I always tell gups, GAOs, mangmis ‘You can do it, but you don’t do it’.”

He says a lack of budget is a good reason,but he believes that even without budget you can do so much. Maybe Tsugawa believes in the magic of innovation in a way that the Bhutanese don’t.  He agrees it could be the mindset.  “This mindset needs to be changed. Bhutan looks pampered.Leader of village, Leader of gewogs, educated need to show the good example by showing humble and good attitude towards work.”

In his opinion human capacity is very important to develop rural areas but it has not yet been recognized.  He says maybe previously people in a way prioritized road, housing, food in the particular order but education is very important for country development.  He hopes to change that under the project where he currently works.  “We concentrate on human capacity than infrastructure. Of course infrastructure is important, but human capacity building is even more important,” he said.  Tsugawa believes in the human as an agent for change.

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