Kobe group lobbies hotels, transportation firms to offer discounts to support disaster volunteers

JIJI

A group lobbying for transport and lodging discounts for disaster volunteers has been launched in Kobe to keep the spirit of volunteerism alive.

The “group to actualize discounts for disaster volunteers” was launched Friday, the 19th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that wrecked the city.

1995 has been called the “beginning of volunteering” in Japan, since the quake drew an unprecedented number of people eager to help victims.

But volunteers have been relatively slow to visit northeastern areas hurt by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, partly because those areas are far away from major cities.

The Japan National Council of Social Welfare says that 1.73 million volunteers went to help areas damaged by the Hanshin quake in the following 32 months, arriving by foot or by bicycle from Osaka and other nearby cities.

Tohoku, however, only saw 1.33 million volunteers arrive in the same period of time to help deal with the aftermath of the March 2011 disasters.

“Many people have stopped traveling there due to the cost,” said Morio Takahashi, 65, a member of Hyogo Voluntary Plaza who called for starting the Kobe group. The Hyogo Prefecture-run volunteer support center where he works has conducted 120 free bus trips to Tohoku. Last month, demand was so high the 40 seats on one bus sold out in just 15 minutes for the 13-hour trip.

Some companies are answering the groups calls for discounts.

In May 2011, East Japan Railway Co., or JR East, halved the nonreserved seat fee for Tohoku bullet trains going from disaster-hit areas to Tokyo for a month.

After the Pacific island of Izu Oshima was hit by a deadly typhoon last year, Tokai Kisen Co. offered 30 percent ferry discounts to rescue volunteers certified by social welfare councils.

The Kobe group plans to collect signatures to pressure the national government to introduce a discount system for volunteers, as well as subsidies, while calling on companies to support such volunteers.

“In this disaster-prone country, a discount system is needed,” Takahashi said.