Finding the ways to fill the time
Ideas flew around the room, some sticking to a large square of butchers paper with thick, multi-coloured markers. We listened, enthralled, to Aki, a postman by day (I deliver hope, love, dreams by paper), wind up into a typhoon of creative excitement, mirrored in his handwriting. “Massage!” He cried, “Wow, if we had massage, it would awesome. ” Then, “C.S. Customer Service and Cycling Station! We could have a map, like they do on the highways. S.A. = Service Area. C.S. = Cycling Station! ”
“Write it down! Write it down!” The others cried, and he scribbled away.
It was my first NPO (non-profit organisation) brainstorming meeting.
Three weeks earlier, the room had been dark and still. Standing outside I thought they were closed, but the auto-doors swung open. I wanted to volunteer with local environmental groups and had been directed here to an NPO with aims of merging the five senses with the environment and life via promoting bicycle riding. In Japan. One of the top bicycle using nations in the world.
Shouldn’t be too difficult a task.
The NPO rents a massive two story building. The front room was once a cafe and has a beautiful wooden bar running down its length and mirrored shelves for spirit bottles. But the cafe is gone and instead bicycles hang from the walls and clutter the floor. During my first visit, no people were in evidence.
I climbed the stairs, and found an office, spacious and airy, with a vast wooden table and two women. One, head in her arms, appeared to be asleep.
She looked up blearily, all fluffy bed hair, while the other girl, tangling herself in cables, rushed over to the doorway. In response to my questions, she explained that the NPO was started in 2006 by a local professor who is now their representative. Their projects include increasing their fleet of person-powered taxis, some modern and German built, others made from recycled rickshaws. Hand-drawn designs of these sleek machines were stuck to the walls. Other services they provide include bike rentals at the station, cycling events, like an annual two day trip around Japan’s largest lake and, only recently, monthly bicycle promotion seminars.
I was invited to the inaugural ‘brainstormer’. Talking to people in the meantime, I learned that some NPOs in Japan are be abused as vehicles for professors to pad out their resumes, provide jobs for friends or even to funnel money in projects they are personally connected to. Looking over the NPO’s brochures, some questioned:
Where does it really say they are protecting the environment? Their “concrete goals” are really vague. Promote a “slow lifestyle”… what does that even mean?
Fifteen people attended the brainstormer. Five were full-time paid staff, and two were on the board of Directors. The founding associate professor’s contribution to his creation was in delivering sarcastic asides during an opening presentation, then disappearing upstairs all night. The other Director, as well as some staff members don’t own bikes, however most attendees were cycle-enthusiasts and their self introductions included phrases like: ” I first started cycling when…” “I have completed the lake circuit tour twice now. ” Or, “I work here, but I’d really like to have my own bike shop. ”
The theme to consider was how to turn their huge, empty space into a cycling cafe, and while everything about this NPO is beautifully designed, from the website to their flyers to the uniforms the bike-taxi men wear, they seem to suffer from an inability to make more concrete decisions. The ideas for creating a cycle cafe diverged into fantastic plans for Youth Hostels, bicycle themed music videos a la Kraftwerk, having a claw-machine installed and allowances that people with uncool “Mama-chari” bikes would be allowed in.
To my personal disappointment, a love for bicycles didn’t mean an interest in being environmentally friendly, with one staff member declaring herself ”anti-eco’ and only riding a bike so she doesn’t have to get a driver’s license. By the end of the night, I had made some interesting new contacts, but other than the barely legible, wildly irrelevant, scribbles on the butchers paper, little else had been achieved.
Perhaps my image of long-haired, true-believers is a Western cultural concept, or maybe the warnings were correct and this NPO, with its fuzzily defined goals, is an example of bureaucratic corruption or a step ladder for the annoying associate professor.
Maybe it was their first workshop and they are still figuring out the bugs. But for an organisation to be still this muddled after six years raises the question of what it is doing at all.