Cathy Hirano says it was “so painful to feel powerless in the face of such a huge disaster,” recalling the day a year ago that the Pacific coast of Tohoku was hit by the huge earthquake and tsunami.

The feeling of helplessness is something that will likely linger among many others throughout the country, but Hirano, a ginger-haired long-term resident of Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, and director of the charity Second Hand, was less powerless to help than many at that moment.

“It makes a huge difference to be able to do something,” Hirano says. “I think what was really moving for me were these small acts — people coming to us at Second Hand, bringing things to send to the disaster area. You could see they were just longing to do something, you could see they thought ‘Thank God, there’s someone giving me a chance to help,’ because it was so painful.”

Second Hand, at the time, was in a unique position. Long-term work in Cambodia and a charity shop-based fundraising approach had given the organization both the knowhow to collect funds and necessities for the disaster areas, and the networks needed to get supplies to people most likely to need them.

“We started raising funds right away, because we knew that money was going to be needed. My daughter, who also volunteers for Second Hand, went out on the Sunday after, and within two hours had raised, I think, ¥150,000. To raise even ¥10,000 in an hour is pretty good, and we were stunned. She went to the train station and people so obviously wanted to do something, but they also wanted to make sure that it was going to be used well. When they saw it was Second Hand, they contributed.

“We were also contacting all of the NGOs and friends we knew, to find key people in the disaster area who could tell us what was needed. Within four days, we had word from an organization that we’ve been doing a medical project with in Cambodia. They’re from Tokushima, and they had contact with a local hospital in Natori (in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami) and were sending doctors. They were able to tell us what was needed there, and we sent out an appeal through the media and our website to gather supplies. We sent two truckloads with them. Very soon after that we were able to get in direct contact with two shelters in Ishinomaki.

“Within the month, we had sent nine shipments of more than 30 tons of supplies. And we were being referred calls from both and prefectural and the Takamatsu city government from people who wanted to donate things or volunteer or do anything that was needed. But the government wasn’t prepared — and that’s not a criticism, because nothing like this had ever happened — they just didn’t know how to respond, so they told people to contact Second Hand. When the city government did start accepting supplies, they didn’t really know how to get them up there, so they asked us for help. So we helped facilitate sending their supplies into the area.”

Getting to the stage where the organization is so trusted by local governments and local people alike has been a long and complex process, both for Second Hand and for Hirano.

Born in Ontario and raised across Canada, Hirano came to Japan as a student, and upon graduation found work in Tokyo as a translator at a construction company engaged in overseas development projects.

“I worked there from 1983 to 1987, and during those years I began to see that what we were calling overseas development assistance wasn’t actually helping people to develop. A lot of the money was going into the pockets of government officials in the other country, and a lot of it was coming back to Japan by employing Japanese engineers, and Japanese experts, and importing Japanese machines. It was the old style, you know. I was looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is where my tax money is going?’ I decided that I wouldn’t get involved in anything like that again, unless I could be sure how the money would be used.”

Started organically in 1994 by local radio announcer Yasuko Nitta to do something concrete to help Cambodians, Second Hand is based on the British model, where donated goods are sold to raise money for projects overseas.

“As far as I know,” Hirano says, “it was the first charity shop in Japan. At the time the Japanese idea of volunteering and charity was very narrow, in an all-or-nothing way.

“But because Second Hand was a charity shop, even shopping, even donating something that you don’t need that someone else might want, becomes an act of volunteering because you’re contributing to this cause, right? I felt the shop really raised awareness that volunteering didn’t have to be hard, volunteering can be fun, volunteering can be done when you have the time, you don’t have to sacrifice your family to do it, you can make it a natural part of your life.”

In the following years, Second Hand’s projects expanded from the initial library-stocking to the construction of schools and health facilities, the establishment of a vocational training center and the development of a model for emergency medical services, all aimed at educating and empowering Cambodians.

The charity also focused on raising awareness in Japan by taking study groups to Cambodia and bringing Cambodians to Japan. Hirano first visited Cambodia in 2003 to facilitate discussions between Second Hand and a health project in a slum district of Phnom Penh. From there, her connection with the charity grew, first as she became more seriously involved in the steering committee and then by taking on the directorship in 2007.

“We give people of all ages the opportunity to do something. And we take them to meet the people they are supporting, to experience what life is like for them and to see the impact that their volunteer work has had on these people’s lives. That really empowers them. They know they can make a difference. It’s the empowerment on both sides; it’s the face to face. You actually get to know the people you’re assisting as human beings. And when you get to know someone like that, it can really change your life, and that was, for me, quite profound.

“This sort of people-to-people style of cooperation is what really builds lasting bonds between countries. When the earthquake and tsunami happened, we got so many messages from Cambodia, people asking if everybody was alright, or telling us that they went to the embassy and donated for the disaster victims, or took flowers, or said prayers at their temple for the people in Japan. These are people who are living on the edge, and we were all so touched, because their lives are so much more difficult than ours.”

While Second Hand has been continuing to fund Cambodian projects over the last year, a portion of its sales in the months after the disaster was set aside to help the Tohoku survivors. In addition to sending supplies to shelters in Ishinomaki, the charity worked with other NGOs to launch and fund a cash-for-work project in April.

“We used the money to pay people to help clean out the homes; to help disaster victims help other disaster victims. It allowed people to stay where they were until other work was available, and I think that was really important.”

Although the future is still uncertain in the worst-hit areas, it seems crucial to find a way forward. Second Hand is keen to provide opportunities to empower people.

“We’re in the process of setting up a community shop. We’re working with a locally based NGO to find a premise near temporary housing that will be able to provide both a shop space and a community space.

“Second Hand will provide the knowhow and initial inventory, as well as directly employing the manager and paying people to work there on a cash-for-work basis. They will be gaining skills, learning how to manage inventory or do whatever is involved in running the shop. The shop itself will be a charity shop, offering goods that are priced low enough that people in the community can afford them, and they’ll use the funds collected for their community. It will also provide a space where people can gather.”

Hirano returns to her theme: “I think again that the people connection will be what keeps this going. Big organizations move on. But the little people-oriented groups, like Second Hand, are going to want to continue until they’re sure that everybody is OK, or at least, back on their feet.”

For more information about Second Hand, go to 2nd-hand.main.jp/index.php?English

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.