Soon after two deadly earthquakes struck southern Japan in April, Tomoko Serihara, the mother of a preschool daughter, was desperately searching for a car.
“While many other families fled for safety soon after the first quake, we could not because we did not own a car,” Ms. Serihara says.
After some online research, she tearfully called a man who was 750 miles away, Takehiko Yoshizawa.
Why Mr. Yoshizawa? He helped with this very problem after the 2011 tsunami – and as a result, he became the head of a car-sharing project.
The mother’s call prompted Yoshizawa to travel the 750 miles to Kumamoto, where Serihara lives, and start looking for vehicles for those affected by the disaster.
“In Kumamoto, some cars were buried under collapsed houses and others damaged by falling debris,” he recalls. “Luckily, we soon found someone in neighboring Kagoshima prefecture who was willing to provide a car.”
Within two months, Yoshizawa had collected nearly 40 cars that residents could use free of charge for the first three months as they rebuilt their lives after the twin temblors. “It was a huge help. We could not have gone anywhere without a car in the aftermath of the quakes,” says Serihara, who used one for two weeks.
Yoshizawa’s work hasn’t exactly been a likely course of action. Before the tsunami, he hardly knew what car sharing was. Although the West tends to view car sharing as economical and eco-friendly, it hasn’t taken hold in Japan.
But Yoshizawa set up and now leads the Japan Car Sharing Association in the northeastern city of Ishinomaki, which was one of the hardest-hit areas in 2011. And in late April, he launched a branch of the association in Kumamoto, where Serihara became a volunteer, helping other residents.
“He is genuinely heading toward the target and he won’t stop,” says Tamaki Kawaguchi, president of J-tips, a Tokyo web consulting firm that also conducts market research on car sharing in Japan. “He is the epitome of how a strong will can achieve a desired goal.”
How it all began
In March 2011, Yoshizawa was working on projects in western Japan with his mentor, Osho Yamada. But after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami, he joined rescue operations in Fukushima prefecture.
A month later, Mr. Yamada had a suggestion for him: that he launch a community car-sharing program in the tsunami-stricken area. Yamada himself had led a volunteer movement in recovery efforts following the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that killed at least 6,400.
Yoshizawa, a soft-spoken man with a ready smile, accepted the idea meekly, though he had never heard of the words “car sharing.” Still, he soon embarked on the project in Ishinomaki.
In Ishinomaki alone, as many as 60,000 vehicles were lost in the disaster, while 45 percent of the houses were either demolished or partially destroyed, city officials estimate.
As Yoshizawa got going with the project, there was one wrinkle: He was an inexperienced driver. So when a company in Kyoto, Japan, offered his group its very first car, “I got very nervous because I had to drive to Ishinomaki from Kyoto,” which is more than 500 miles, he says.
Within months, the group had received dozens of vehicles, including 31 donated by used-car dealer Gulliver International.
Although the Japan Car Sharing Association may sound well established, “it did not have money, a system, and enough employees” when Mr. Kawaguchi, the J-tips president, first met Yoshizawa more than four years ago, he says.
But Yoshizawa “has kept moving ahead anyway, placing priority on what is right and what is convenient to users,” Kawaguchi continues. “I have been impressed over and over again.”
The association has boosted its overall number of cars to about 130, and the fleet includes electric vehicles such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Toyota Coms.
Yoshizawa’s initiative has been supported by many, including automakers, parts manufacturers, public officials, professors, and volunteers. “Companies are eager to make contributions to disaster-hit areas, and we have been working together in recovery operations,” Yoshizawa explains.
Take Abekatsu Motors in Ishinomaki. Back in 2011, some 450 cars at the company, including dozens of customers’ vehicles that were under repair, were swept away by the tsunami, says managing director Katsutoshi Abe. Its office was also destroyed.
But it received an outpouring of support, and it has wanted to give something back to society, Mr. Abe says. So it donated 10 vehicles to the Kumamoto branch this year.
“We were very encouraged by the big support at that time,” Abe says. “It’s important to help each other.”
Five years after the tsunami, recovery events continue in Japan’s northeast – although hundreds of thousands of volunteers and nongovernmental organizations are long gone from the region.
But not Yoshizawa. “I have never thought about leaving this place,” he says flatly in the association’s cramped office, which is part of prefabricated temporary housing for those who lost their homes.
He vows to expand the car-sharing project beyond Ishinomaki and Kumamoto.
“This is not a fixed-term project,” he emphasizes. “This will take hold here, and we are going to create a model of community car sharing.”
Yoshizawa’s group “has contributed to revitalizing the community, which was shattered by the disaster,” says Ishinomaki Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama. “Locals’ involvement in the project has helped them regain their smile and move forward.”
In June, Yoshizawa traveled to Austria and Switzerland to study car-sharing programs there. And in early October, his group organized a symposium on car sharing in Ishinomaki.
More interest in volunteering
Many citizens in Ishinomaki, a conservative fishing town, still tend to turn to authorities for help. But volunteer work is being gradually woven into the fabric of daily life, Yoshizawa says.
In September, for example, some residents rushed to join recovery efforts in the town of Iwaizumi, 90 miles north of Ishinomaki, where a deadly typhoon triggered mudslides and flooding. In addition, Yoshizawa and volunteers drove 13 vehicles to the area so residents could use them.
Hisayo Aizawa, a mother of four grown children, joined the car-sharing project as a volunteer driver.
“When I heard about the car sharing, I thought there was something I could do to help,” says Ms. Aizawa, who has become a part-time worker to handle accounting and general affairs.
The tsunami killed her husband and swept away the family’s house and rice store. She has lived in temporary housing in Ishinomaki for more than five years.
Yoshizawa has hired workers such as Aizawa from the community. And students from Ishinomaki Senshu University occasionally help look over the association’s vehicles and replace car parts.
“It would be much easier to bring in experienced workers from places like Tokyo,” Yoshizawa says. “But I believe this is a good opportunity for local residents in the disaster-hit city to get empowered and gain experience, which could turn out to be long-lasting strengths of the community.”
How to take action
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups working in disaster relief and recovery:
Operation USA aids children and families in the wake of natural disasters and other challenges. Take action: Donate money for Ecuador earthquake recovery efforts.
International Medical Corps is a humanitarian organization devoted to saving lives and easing suffering. Take action: Contribute funds for emergency response in Haiti and elsewhere after hurricane Matthew.
Highland Support Project works with community leaders to address environmental, social, and economic challenges. Take action: Support a new community center in Guatemala following a mudslide.