Aid-givers sending used bikes to disaster zone

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Among the numerous nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations that delivered basic necessities like food and clothes to tsunami-devastated areas in the Tohoku region, the NPO Bikes for Japan did its part by delivering refurbished bicycles to survivors living in shelters.

Bicycle repairman Daiki Mochizuki from Saitama Prefecture and Tokyo resident Henry Osborn started the nonprofit organization to collect mainly secondhand bikes and put them in the hands of people living in shelters in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.

So far the group has gathered and delivered about 500 bikes to tsunami-ravaged communities.

After the disaster, people in shelters were deprived of public transportation as well as their own cars, motorcycles and bicycles, and often the only way of getting around was on foot. The group thought bicycles could be a useful tool for people to move from shelters to temporary housing or to go shopping, or for kids to go back and forth from school, which sometimes can be several kilometers away.

Initially, the group mainly provided adult bicycles to the shelters because the terrain wasn’t safe enough for kids to ride around on, but they found out that after a while it was OK to deliver more kids’ bikes.

“Some shelters wanted kids bikes so that kids would have something to do that was fun. A lot of the kids were getting very bored with all the stress, never knowing what was going on,” Osborn said.

Initially, Mochizuki, who works at a bicycle shop in Saitama, went up to Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, on his own after the March 11 quake to volunteer his repair skills at one of the shelters there.

Rather than just fixing bikes, however, he wanted to deliver usable bicycles to the evacuees. He contacted around 100 acquaintances but managed to secure only about 30 bikes, so he tried to find a way to get his hands on more.

Osborn, who heard about Mochizuki’s activities from a colleague who was also doing relief work in Tagajo, immediately offered to help out, as he is a bike freak himself. At that time, Osborn was also thinking of a way to help the tsunami survivors through bicycles.

The two set up a website and started to gather volunteers through Facebook, Twitter and Mixi. Word started to get around the Japanese and non-Japanese communities. International schools, elementary schools and a kindergarten in Tokyo, a junior high school at the U.S. Yokota Air Base, foreign workers at companies, including Heidrick & Struggles, Pre/Post and JPMorgan, as well as individuals helped by giving donations to the project, as well as collecting and delivering the used bicycles. A group called Battery Park City Cares in New York contacted the group through the website and donated $2,500 (a little over ¥200,000).

Members of the bicycle club at Shibaura Institute of Technology offered a site on its campus where the group could store the bicycles before delivery, and also repaired the bikes so they would be in good shape.

Starting in late April, the group has used trucks to deliver the bikes to shelters about a dozen times. Osborn says so far he has made three delivery trips, covering such areas as Ishinomaki, Higashimatsushima, Natori and Minamisanriku, and was happy to see that the people at the shelters were very pleased to receive the bicycles.

He says he was fascinated to see that the group’s activities connected different communities in Japan.

“I think a lot of the international community felt isolated after the earthquake, probably mainly because of the language barriers. When a campaign like this comes up, it can connect so many people. It connects the international communities with the community in Saitama, for example,” he said.

Over the next month or so the group plans to repair and deliver 150 more bicycles — mainly for kids — to Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and parts of Fukushima Prefecture.