Ashley has a piece today in the Japan Times about volunteering at orphanages in Japan. If you think you may be interested in a such a thing, I recommend you pursue it.
My last year in Japan, I volunteered for several months at an orphanage called Children's Home. After reading an article about Smile Kids Japan, I felt inspired to see if I could set something up in my area, so I sent out some messages and was contacted by a Japanese woman on the Hyogo JET Program mailing list who worked with the BOE and said she would be interested in helping me set things up if I needed any assistance. I was grateful for the offer and took her up on it. She helped me make contact with the administrators of a local orphanage that I had found in my research, and she and I went to go meet the director in charge of volunteers. He was a friendly guy, though a little nervous because they hadn't had any foreign volunteers before. Despite his nervousness, he thought our visits could be good because we would be interesting and different to the kids, and also perhaps spark their interest in studying English. He gave us some literature and explained their rules and policies and about insurance, etc.
First I should mention that as Ashley points out in her article, the term "orphanage" in Japan doesn't usually mean a place for children with no parents these days. More often it's somewhere for children with volatile family situations, such as unfit parents. There can be children of all ages up to 18; once they hit adulthood, they can't legally be supported by the orphanage anymore. It's also not uncommon for children to be in and out of these facilities as they leave or rejoin their families. Generally these places aren't looking for kids in their care to be adopted.
After gathering together a core group of about 5 or 6 volunteers (other JET members), we worked out that I would try to schedule visits on weekends about twice a month, and the others would join me when they were available. After the first few times, our Japanese helper passed the baton to me and I began communicating with the volunteer director via email to schedule our visits. We would usually visit after lunch for 2 or 3 hours. Most of the time we'd just hang out with the littler kids (probably about middle school age), since they took the most interest in us. There was a dirt yard with a kind of jungle gym and some swings, and we would usually place games like soccer or tag (they also loved piggyback rides - おんぶ in Japanese). If the weather was bad or it was too hot, we would go to the kids' rooms (they shared where they slept and there were generally about 8-10 kids per room, with desks and bunk beds and usually a TV) and they would show us their toys. The little boys would often make me and Joe play wrestling games with them and we would let them beat us up a bit.
Sometimes our visits would overlap with a group of senior citizens who would visit twice a month to play Igo with the children. They also wound up teaching us how to play.
I think it was probably good practice for being a parent...I would always leave exhausted. In retrospect, I'm very glad I got involved with the community in this way, but I wish I had searched for something like that sooner (there was apparently a group in Kobe also volunteering at a different orphanage, but I didn't become aware of it until I investigated setting something up in my area). I also wish I had visited more often, but you know how life is...we all have our own things going on, and sometimes it's all too easy to be selfish and do our own things.
Also reinforced for me how resilient kids are. I know those children have tough lives and I'm sure they have an inner turmoil and suffering that we didn't see. But it felt good to see them having fun when we visited, and for the most part they seemed like happy and positive children. The worst part was when we would leave and they would beg us to stay longer, or ask us when we would visit again.
If you are considering volunteering at a place like that, just be sure you can make the commitment. Because once you start going, the kids will come to look forward to your visits and they will be disappointed if you don't come back. I don't blame anyone, but some of the volunteers I recruited were busy and had a lot of obligations, and when some of them would miss a few weeks, the children would ask about them and why they weren't coming, and it was sad to see.
I'm not an expert on the subject, but if you have any questions about finding or setting up a group in your area, feel free to email me or leave a comment and I'll do my best to get you some information.