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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.

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“I’m grateful for their work and enjoy talking to them,” says Hiroko Sakai, a disaster victim in Ishinomaki, who received rice from the Yokotas.

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Ms. Sakai, who has lived in temporary housing for nine months, says she lost 10 neighbors in the disaster.

Volunteers unexpectedly enriched

It’s a familiar story. Yuma Okubo’s grandparents were also disaster victims: Their house in Ofunato was swept away by the tsunami.

Mr. Okubo, a sociology major at Tsuru University, visited his grandparents at an emergency shelter in the city, when he decided to start volunteering.

He got unexpected education from the experience.

“I have learned a lot by interacting with disaster victims and other volunteers,” says Okubo, who adds he had no interest in volunteerism before. The experience “has expanded my view after meeting people with very different ideas.”

Okubo then organized a volunteer group at the university as he wanted other students to have similar experience. The group has traveled to the disaster zone seven times.

His professor, Mr. Takata, says he’s seen the benefit volunteer work provides in his students.

“Those who join volunteer activities meet many people they would otherwise never meet. They also learn a variety of things while coordinating their activities and caring about others,” he says.

Seiji Yoshimura became one of the leaders of impromptu volunteer groups in Kobe.  Mr. Yoshimura has also helped with other relief operations, including the 1999 Taiwan earthquake, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

At daybreak following the March 11 disaster, Yoshimura was in the coastal areas of Miyagi Prefecture, the hardest-hit region, to help rescue victims.

Now co-founder of volunteer group Open Japan Kizuna in Ishinomaki, Yoshimura says that this time, more people were ready to volunteer than he’d seen in any other disaster.

Postal workers to the rescue

Hirokazu Murano, postmaster in Yokohama, has organized “volunteer tours” for postal workers to help clean up in the aftermath of the disaster. In mid-February, one of the projects that Mr. Murano and 70 other postal workers helped out with involved shovelling away mud from a 120-year-old house in Ishinomaki. “I’ve learned there are so many people who want to be of service,” Murano says.

Nobuaki Minami, who works for an IT company in Tokyo, regretted not having volunteered following a 6.8-magnitude quake in 2004 that jolted Niigata, in central Japan, killing 68 people and injuring nearly 5,000.

Mr. Minami now volunteers in the Miyagi  disaster zone every month.

“I’m not the type of person who believes [an] image on television,” Minami says. “The media report the best and the worst, not in-between. So, I wanted to see for myself.”

Minami says his involvement has changed his outlook.

“At the very beginning, I was doing volunteer work with a sense of mission. But soon this has become part of my life,” Minami says.

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