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.

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.

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.

“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.

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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