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As Japan marks tsunami anniversary, a fresh spirit of volunteerism

One year after Japan's earthquake and subsequent tsunami disaster, some 1 million people have taken the time to volunteer in the disaster zone, bolstering a trend that began in earnest with the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

By Takehiko Kambayashi.Correspondent / March 7, 2012



Ishinomaki, Japan

Sunday, Japan commemorated those who died in last year’s triple disaster with a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m., the time an earthquake hit northeastern Japan setting off a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.

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The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011, was one of the largest in recorded history, and left more than 15,800 people dead and nearly 3,300 missing. Thousands of people are still in temporary housing units one year later. But even as bureaucratic delays in coordination between central government and local government slow recovery, Japanese citizens are stepping up to do what they can to help those in need. 

[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the year of the March 11 earthquake.]

On a recent brisk Saturday afternoon, Junko Yokota and her husband, Ryosuke, are delivering a 6-lb. bag of rice to elderly residents in a temporary housing unit for victims of the tsunami in the city of Ishinomaki.

To make that delivery, the couple took a night bus from Tokyo after work on Friday to Ishinomaki, 220 miles northeast of the Japanese capital.

The Yokotas were among the estimated 1 million volunteers who traveled to the disaster-hit region to volunteer after.

The couple, like many other Japanese, had never been involved in volunteer work but were spurred by images and stories of need following the biggest earthquake they had experienced, says Junko, a web designer. Their decision to volunteer and to continue volunteering almost a year after the disaster highlights a shift in Japan from seeing civic duties as largely the government’s responsibility to taking individual or private initiative.  

When they joined official volunteer efforts, they were surprised at how much help was needed. “I was so shocked to see the extent of the damage,” Junko recalls. Since their first trip in June, they have made a trip to the region at least once a month to help out.

Volunteerism picks up 

Japan doesn't traditionally have a deeply entrenched sense of volunteerism. But it has grown in the past two decades as more people have begun to help out following natural disasters.

After there were serious delays in relief operations following the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which killed more than 6,400 people, hundreds of thousands of citizens flocked to the scene in an unprecedented offer of assistance.

Since then, volunteer groups and nonprofit organizations have sprung up across Japan.  Analysts say the disasters and slow government response encouraged a new trend that is mutually beneficial to both the volunteers and the communities in which they serve. “I’m quite confident that involvement in volunteer work enriches people,” says Ken Takata,  professor of sociology at Tsuru University in Yamanashi.

According to the Japanese Council of Social Welfare, the number of those who volunteered through municipalities in the region reached 930,000 as of mid-February.  But many others took part through citizens groups, so the actual number is believed to be much higher, local leaders said.

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