Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Japan's diverse bunch of disaster volunteers are primed for a warming world

by Shaun O'dwyer

Contributing Writer

The flooding and landslides struck rural Hiroshima with terrifying swiftness. On the evening of July 6, torrential rains in Hiroshima dumped down an almost unprecedented 40-60 millimeters of water per hour.

Soil on hillsides soon liquefied under these downpours to form mudslides that sluiced down at speeds of up to 30 kilometers per hour, carrying masses of sand, igneous rock, uprooted trees and debris. The rural communities in Hiroshima’s Saka, Kumano and Kure districts — spread out at the foot of forested hills — were directly in their path.

Some residents were lucky. A woman I spoke to in Saka described a flow on the street in front of her home “like a fast-running river.” It was not high, she said, “but if you stepped into it, you would’ve been swept away.”

She and her elderly father retreated safely to the second floor of their house, which suffered minimal damage. But as if to underline their luck, there were three large boulders sitting across the road from where we were talking, weighing a total of perhaps 2 to 3 tons, capable of pulverizing cars and damaging houses in the path of a mud flow.

Others facing deeper, more powerful flows were not lucky. One Kumano resident interviewed by the Chugoku Shimbun related what happened in his neighborhood: “It was around 8 p.m. when I heard a roaring sound from the mountain, and then a house nearby was buried by a landslide. I could hear people inside screaming for help, but it was so dark and there was nothing I could do.”

According to data published by the Hiroshima Prefectural Council of Social Welfare, there were 52 fatalities during the flooding and landslides in Saka, Kumano and Kure, and 2,060 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

When I arrived in rural Hiroshima for a week of volunteering with International Disaster Relief Organization Japan in late August, there was still ample evidence of the damage inflicted by the mud flows. In Tenno, the first floors of homes 50 meters from a river bank were filled with sand and rocks to over a meter in depth, and brick walls lay toppled and buried under sediment; next to the river there were homes and cars packed with sand. In nearby Nakano, a river was still choked with sand and rocks. In Koyaura, I saw student volunteers removing liquid mud from under the floor of a hair salon.

Extremes vs. enthusiasm

Climate scientists have pointed to likely, if complex, causal links between anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, increasingly extreme rainfall and super-storm events, and landslide occurrences in Japan and elsewhere in the world. A 2012 Japanese government report speculated on a correlation between global warming and increasing annual frequencies of days with precipitation of 100 mm or more, and increasing annual frequencies of days with hourly precipitation of 50 mm or more, as had occurred in the July floods and landslides.

I would like to say something here about how internationalized volunteerism in Japan can foster socially cohesive efforts to cope with, and broadcast the effects of, extreme weather-related disasters — which climate change modeling predicts will likely increase in intensity.

If this modeling proves correct, many challenges lie ahead for disaster relief authorities, local communities and volunteers. Landslide and flooding disaster preparation measures remain underdeveloped in Japan, relative to its impressive record in earthquake and tsunami preparation. Rural communities in districts like Saka, Kumano and Kure, with high populations of elderly residents, are acutely vulnerable to extreme weather-related disasters.

The heat-wave conditions in July and August proved dangerous for elderly survivors and arduous for volunteers. Even in the cooler weather of late August when I was in Hiroshima, the volunteer labor was physically demanding, involving long days of shoveling sand, rocks and mud off of — or from under — residential properties and shops, the building of sandbag walls to protect properties from further flooding and the stripping-out and cleaning of damaged building interiors.

Thrown into the balance against these challenges was the enthusiasm and dedication of volunteers, including the Finnish, Indian, American and Vietnamese people I worked alongside in IDRO Japan; the breadth of skill and depth of experience of veteran foreign volunteers such as IDRO’s director, Robert Mangold; and the resources and expertise of Japanese volunteers from organizations like the Nippon Foundation. Between us, I like to think we shifted a fair amount of sand, rocks, debris, damaged home flooring and drywall.

Lastly, there were the 120 student volunteers from the Japanese NPO International Volunteers University Students Association (IVUSA) who arrived in the town of Koyaura in late August to commence a well-organized cleaning operation, deeply impressing local residents and other volunteer groups with their enthusiasm and hard work.

Seven years ago, while helping organize student volunteers following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I wondered whether many would ever come. Watching these volunteers at work, I felt I could put such worries to rest.

Seeing and spreading the word

Thinking about those student volunteers after a volunteer camp conversation with IDRO members, I reread a landmark 1906 essay by the American pragmatist philosopher William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Can today’s volunteer mobilizations for extreme weather-related disaster relief become a modern version of that equivalent?

In some respects, James’ essay has not aged well. Bewhiskered advocates for “military instincts and virtues” and manly “hardihoods” like the men James was trying to persuade are rare today, and his proposals for diverting those instincts and virtues to pacifist ends now seem anachronistic: He believed they would best serve nonmilitarist purposes through mass conscription of the nation’s male youth for community service labor, in a peaceful “war against nature.” James’ ideas ultimately inspired the foundation of the United States Peace Corps, though it wisely remains a volunteer organization open to young men and women.

Yet some of James’ insights apply to Japan’s disaster relief volunteer fraternity as I have experienced it. Those participating in this fraternity can cultivate more modern equivalents of the virtues or abilities James celebrated, whether male or female, Japanese or foreign — cooperativeness, empathy, selflessness, endurance, and the skills of manual labor. Such participation also has a leveling effect much as James envisaged, throwing together foreign and Japanese nationals, university-educated professionals, “gilded youths” and people from working-class backgrounds in often hard physical working conditions and communal living.

Finally, this fraternity successfully unites people of diverse viewpoints in common endeavors — even if it sometimes also attracts more disharmonious opportunists, scam artists and cranks. I have encountered Japanese and foreign conservatives, progressives, nationalists and globalists all finding in it their distinctive senses of belonging and purpose. Still, the presence of hard-working foreign volunteers can be a potent check on adversely parochial viewpoints directed against foreign people and immigrants, generating instead bonds of “generalized trust” between foreign volunteers and local communities.

There are two types of benefits that volunteering can deliver in the type of disaster situations now increasingly linked to global warming. First, volunteers provide free physical and emotional-care labor for disaster survivors, thereby reducing the cleaning, repair and renovation expenses of damaged properties and lifting the morale of disaster-affected communities. As extreme weather-related disasters are likely to increase in frequency, Japanese national and local governments will have to find the means to incentivize greater volunteer mobilization.

The second type of benefit is more indirect and more speculative. In the volunteering conditions I have just described, people can grasp the realities of extreme weather-related disasters and infer their likely influences from global warming, through direct observation and quiet discussion with fellow volunteers rather than from debate — which is less likely to change minds in our increasingly polarized times. Climate-change doubters may begin to revise their doubts, and volunteers will also bring home information about what they have seen to raise awareness among their families, friends and communities.

While today’s antagonistic nationalisms and ideological divides threaten the multilateralism needed to control global warming and mitigate its effects, disaster relief volunteerism can drive a countervailing, community-based internationalism, and a cohesion in organization and purpose that transcends national, cultural and ideological differences.

It is my hope that foreign disaster relief volunteers in Japan can increase their contribution to this internationalism, and mobilize to counter the growing threat of extreme weather-related disasters.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University, and a co-director in the disaster relief volunteer group It’s Not Just Mud. Your comments and Community story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp