Difference Maker

Seiji Yoshimura rushes to natural disasters to help

Inspired by the work of an American missionary long ago, Seiji Yoshimura helps out at disaster sites across Asia, including in his native Japan.

By , Correspondent

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    Seiji Yoshimura (r.), who responds to disasters throughout Asia, talks to carpenter Kenji Hoshino at a tsunami-struck house in Ishinomaki, Japan.
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Wrapping a cloth around his head, Seiji Yoshimura pays painstaking attention to a tsunami-struck 75-year-old house in Ishinomaki, a city in northeastern Japan.

Many homes and stores in the community were swept away by a tsunami triggered by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake two years ago. But the spacious wooden house survived.

Mr. Yoshimura, a disaster expert who wears his signature orange working jacket, and an army of volunteers spent months scooping out the mud and debris from the house and the garden. He and local leaders are determined to restore the building and turn it into a center for visitors and residents on the Oshika Peninsula, one of the areas closest to the epicenter of the 2011 temblor.

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"It's important that outsiders come in and create something of value," says Yoshimura, a sturdy man with stubble on his chin.

Yoshimura has been here since the region was struck in March 2011 by a disaster that left about 18,500 people dead or missing.

But the city of Ishinomaki is just the latest place where Yoshimura has set up relief operations. His efforts have been turned into the nonprofit organization Open Japan, which provides various kinds of assistance for residents and helps them rebuild. Many volunteers have come from both inside Japan and abroad, and relief supplies have been flown in.

Yoshimura has dedicated his life to rescue operations and reconstruction assistance to disaster sites in Japan and around the world.

On March 11, 2011, he was ready for a major quake since one had jolted northeast Japan just two days before. "I had put all the equipment in the car," he says.

But after the second, larger quake, it still took about 11 hours for him to travel from Tokyo to Ishinomaki, 230 miles to the northeast. "I arrived in Ishinomaki at 2 a.m. and saw burning red over the mountain," he recalls. "It was an unforgettable scene."

As aftershocks followed the main quake, he spent the next five days in an intensive search for survivors in devastated coastal areas, working alongside police, other rescue workers, and government troops. A number of bodies were found on the shore. "It was hard to find people who were still alive," he says.

Yoshimura puts a priority on being able to rush to a disaster scene quickly to save as many lives as possible. "He is among the first to get to a disaster site and then create a base for volunteers. So, I know where I can go and give some help," says Yuka Inoue, who has known Yoshimura since she was involved in volunteer work after an earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995.

Almost two decades later, Yoshimura still regrets that it took him four days to reach Kobe in western Japan when it was struck by a magnitude-7.3 temblor, the country's worst post-World War II disaster until the 2011 tsunami.

"It was too late," he recalls. "I could have saved more lives."

Yoshimura, at the time a city councilor in western Tokyo, drove a truck to Kobe carrying two huge caldrons in which meals could be cooked for 1,000 people at a time.

He went straight into a district where ethnic Koreans and other minorities were concentrated. A little-known tragedy had occurred in 1923 following an earthquake in Japan's Kanto region that had left about 105,000 dead in Tokyo and surrounding regions: Thousands of ethnic Koreans had been slaughtered by Japanese mobs, who reacted to rumors that Koreans had erupted into violence and poisoned rivers.

In Kobe, Yoshimura was appalled to see the scale of the devastation. "I felt powerless. But I started to be involved in relief activities." He began living in Kobe and became a leader of a volunteer group at a time when the term "volunteer" was unfamiliar to most people in Japan.

Spurred by delays in government relief operations, tens of thousands of Japanese citizens pitched in, even though no national tradition of volunteerism existed.

Ms. Inoue, who ran an animal rescue center after the Kobe quake, says volunteer work is a "moving experience. I want more people to get involved. You can gain an experience making society work. That's what we did in Kobe."

"Kobe is a starting point," Yoshimura recalls. More than 6,400 people died, and many of the deaths were blamed on failure to contain the fire sooner. About 7,000 houses were destroyed by blazes, according to government statistics.

Yoshimura later trained to become a member of a volunteer fire company. "Without a knowledge of firefighting, it's impossible to coordinate closely with firefighters at a disaster scene and operate smoothly as a team," he explains.

Yoshimura also became a logger and learned how to operate heavy machinery.

While he was involved in reconstruction efforts in Kobe, and gaining skills, Yoshimura continued to rush to other disaster sites in Japan and elsewhere, including those of the 1999 earthquake in Taiwan, the 2000 Yunnan Province earthquake in China, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

He also flew to China in 2008 to aid in relief operations after the Sichuan earthquake. And in 2009, he traveled to Indonesia after a big quake there.

"We should develop a good relationship with other Asian countries" because of Japan's wartime atrocities during World War II, Yoshimura says. "At a disaster site, I often shed tears with local soldiers and rescue workers when confronting the extent of the damage and seeing sobbing family members who lost loved ones." He recalls seeing Chinese soldiers openly weeping at the scene of a disaster, a sympathetic image that contradicts how the Chinese are often depicted in the Japanese news media.

Yoshimura had traveled widely even before graduating from Japan Lutheran College in Tokyo. His father is a pastor at an Episcopal church in Tokyo. At 25, Yoshimura had been the youngest person elected to the city council in Kokubunji City, Tokyo. (Before the Kobe earthquake, he decided not to seek reelection.)

A father of two daughters, Yoshimura says his relief work is funded by some 200 individuals. His example is unique in a country where most of the public is used to turning to the government to solve humanitarian crises.

Yoshimura brings "exceptional skills," says Tsukasa Kurosawa, a disaster expert at the Nippon Foundation who has known him since the Kobe quake. "He has many supporters and attracts a variety of people," Mr. Kurosawa says.

Behind Yoshimura's passion for disaster relief is an American.

"The person I respect most is Dr. Paul Rusch," he says. Dr. Rusch was an Episcopal lay missionary who contributed to the rebuilding of St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake. He is also remembered for introducing American football to Japan.

"I feel he is encouraging me to go" to disaster sites and be involved in relief operations, Yoshimura says of Rusch, who did charitable work in Japan until his death in 1979.

So in 2004, after a magnitude-6.8 quake hit Niigata, in central Japan, Yoshimura hurried to the rescue and launched another volunteer group. "I believe Mr. Yoshimura has been doing what he believes in," says Inoue, who joined his team in Niigata. She has also provided support to his work in the northeast.

After two years, volunteer groups and nonprofit organizations have started to leave Ishinomaki. However, groups like Yoshimura's continue to provide support, says Yoshinori Abe, an official at the city's council of social welfare, which runs volunteer centers.

"Mr. Yoshimura is trying to prevent the elderly residents in temporary housing from being isolated," Mr. Abe says. He has brought "invaluable work" to the city, Abe says.

Many residents lost relatives and friends, and have been separated from neighbors and co-workers.

"There are still some people who are not able to talk about what took place two years ago," Yoshimura says. "It's only two years that have passed since the disaster."

Disaster relief in Asia

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Here are two groups selected by UniversalGiving that are helping people recover from natural disasters in Asia:

Build Change aims to greatly reduce economic losses, injuries, and deaths caused by housing collapses due to earthquakes in developing countries. Project: Help to build homes in Padang, Indonesia, to combat the destruction caused by the 2009 tsunami that hit the area.

Asia America Initiative is working to provide emergency relief to those affected by severe flooding and devastating log slides caused by a massive typhoon that struck the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with full force during Christmas week 2012. Project: Donate to emergency typhoon relief in the Philippines.

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