Disaster-relief volunteer networks are essential

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

Takashi Yamamoto, 42, president of Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center, is Japan’s leading expert on volunteer disaster-relief activities. In 1995, when he was a staffer of the educational cruise ship Peace Boat, Yamamoto began working on disaster relief for Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of Jan. 17 that year. He went on to help provide relief in disaster-hit areas overseas, including in Sri Lanka and China.

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Yamamoto has led around 10,000 volunteers in Ishinomaki and Onagawa, both in Miyagi Prefecture, providing hot meals to evacuees and helping clear debris from victims’ homes.

We need to provide immediate help to those affected by earthquakes. That was what I and Tatsuya Yoshioka, director of Peace Boat, thought (in 1995). That’s why we rushed to Kobe right after Great Hanshin Earthquake.

We observed the destroyed towns and found that victims had no information on where to get provisions, such as hot meals and water. We had publishing know-how, and a lithographic printing machine on board our cruise boat, so we began to publish a free paper with the information people needed. Every day we visited several evacuation places in Kobe’s Nagata Ward to update information.

At the time of the Hanshin earthquake, the concept of “disaster-relief volunteers” was not well known. When we set out to help, I first visited the Nagata Ward office and told an official that I wanted to volunteer. The official there told me to write my name on a sheet. That was it — he couldn’t explain anything about the volunteer situation.

People were coming to Kobe to volunteer, while staff from other organizations also arrived. Although my colleagues and I didn’t have relief goods and manpower to offer, we had a lot of information about the evacuees’ situation. In late January, we launched a regular meeting called the “Nagata volunteer leaders’ meeting” to share our information with other groups and to discuss how to match the needs of the affected with supplies, volunteers and organizations. The meetings were effective and we volunteered in Kobe until April.

With volunteering, ordinary people, not just specialists can also help others. Before the Hanshin earthquake, the majority of Japan’s public thought that “volunteering” meant to donate money or that it was limited to specific fields, such as assisting the disabled. People had no concept of volunteering for disaster relief.

Peace Boat held orientations in Tokyo for those who wanted to volunteer, and it sent volunteer groups to Kobe. The volunteers would work in Kobe for about a week, and for over a month, we sent more groups each week. We used the same system we created then to help victims in Tohoku after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, on March 11, 2011.

Public disaster-prevention and relief systems in Japan cannot fully cover the needs of those who have been affected by major catastrophes. Those systems were established by the authorities and are based on the aftermath of the Hanshin earthquake, but the March 11 disaster resulted in situations that the public system was not equipped to cope with.

It is very important to keep an eye on the well-being of volunteers, who can get exhausted from not only hard physical work but also from facing heartbreaking tragedies and the despair of victims. Everyone knows it is important to take care of those affected by a disaster, but we must also take care of the volunteers, too, otherwise it can cause difficulties with other volunteers or even the victims. There must also be good communication between everyone at all times, to prevent any conflict between different nongovernmental organizations.

It is good to criticize the disaster-relief measures of central and local governments, but wait a while to do it, don’t do it directly after the disaster. If you criticize authorities immediately, you won’t be able to work with them to make things progress.

Foreign volunteers can offer great encouragement to the victims. In Ishinomaki, many victims said they were really pleased that foreigners came all the way from overseas or from other parts of Japan to help them. We accepted non-Japanese-speaking volunteers and teamed them with bilingual leaders. Those who came from outside of Japan were particularly motivated. They worked extra hard for the victims.

We need to train more disaster-relief leaders — people who can lead volunteers to work effectively and safely. Those leaders also need to teach volunteers how to work without getting in the way of victims and other people.

Peace Boat has started holding training seminars to train such leaders. But more importantly, we need to form a network of local community members who can work in their own communities in the case of a disaster. That way, people can survive for the first few days directly after a disaster. Also, if a disaster hits another region, the network of members can work together to reach that area and provide help.

I believe it is important to establish a network of local communities that can mutually support each other in case of disaster.