Cleanup effort enters new phase

As volunteers dwindle in Tohoku, companies and NPOs step in

by Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writer

Since the Golden Week holidays in early May, fewer volunteers have gone to the Tohoku region to help it clean up from the devastation caused by the March 11 quake and tsunami.

The American Chamber of Commerce hopes to rectify this deficit by dispatching employees and executives of American companies to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, as volunteers beginning Thursday.

During the aid mission through Sunday, about 40 participants will help remove mud from homes in collaboration with the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat.

“Our goal is to allow these influential leaders to see the real situation in Tohoku,” said David Slater, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Sophia University and the initiator of the project.

Slater said getting businesspeople involved is important because both Japanese and international businesses will also be engaged in efforts to rebuild Tohoku.

“The government and NPOs cannot do it alone,” he said. “The final goal is for them to see what they can do, both as individuals, but especially as part of coordinated corporate social responsibility programs at their companies. It looks like this is already happening, so we are happy to contribute in some way to this bigger goal.”

Bertrand Bailly, a consultant at Robert Walters Japan K.K., said his company is often involved in volunteer work and gave him “paid holidays to participate and strongly encouraged everyone to take part to help” Tohoku.

Bailly, a French national, was interviewing a candidate on the 14th floor of a building when the March 11 temblor hit.

Although he was familiar with minor quakes, as he has been in Japan for six years, it was “a shocking experience,” he said.

After hearing about the situation in Tohoku, Bailly said he desperately wanted to help people there but didn’t know how.

“So when this opportunity arose, I thought it was the perfect time for me to finally give something back to Japan after receiving so much and being treated so well by this country,” he said.

Australian Candice Webb, who works at Tokyo office of Aflac International Inc., said she felt the same way and opted to take part in the program.

“I have already donated money to support Tohoku, but I have been wanting to do something else to help.”

Webb had moved to Tokyo just two weeks before the quake, she said.

She was working on the 22nd floor of a 55-story skyscraper March 11, and it was a terrifying experience, she said, partly because the building continued to sway.

“I just can’t sit back and watch the people of Tohoku continue to suffer, months after the earthquake and into the future, without trying to do what I can to help,” she said.

Slater decided to launch the project in late April with Patricia Robinson, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University who is also chairwoman of the ACCJ’s human resources committee.

The two decided to bring ACCJ and Peace Boat together.

They selected Peace Boat because “it is one of the largest, and especially, (one of) the best organized NPOs in Japan today,” said Slater.

He added that Peace Boat is “set up to help companies take the next step — to develop CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs that will directly benefit the people who need them.”

The NGO founder, Tatsuya Yoshioka, said he welcomes the participation of non-Japanese. “The number of volunteers remarkably decreased” after Golden Week, although more are needed, he said.

“I’d like more non-Japanese to participate in volunteer work,” Yoshioka said, partly because friendships can be created through volunteer activities amid a natural disaster.

“We’ll realize we can understand, cooperate and support each other beyond borders,” he said.