At 10:50 p.m. last Monday night, a bus carrying 42 people, mostly employees of the Shangri-La Hotel Tokyo, left the underground car park of the luxury hotel adjacent to JR Tokyo Station.

Their mission: A one-day volunteer trip to the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, where efforts to recover from the devastating tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 are stalling, and where 1,012 people are still missing, presumably swept out to sea or buried under the debris.

Having spent the night on the bus, the hotel’s multinational team of volunteers, including its general manager, Wolfgang Krueger, arrived in the city’s Watanoha residential district at 6 a.m.

That destination had been selected by the hotel’s staff in advance following consultations with an NGO operating in the disaster area, because the relief efforts are going so slowly there even though it is among the worst-affected areas.

Nearly four months after the natural disasters, though a number of plots of land in this expansive housing area have been cleared, the huge piles of debris around the place show how the structures once there were smashed to pieces by the killer waves. The houses that do still stand, bear watermarks on their walls several meters up, suggesting that at least their first floors were entirely submerged.

While most of the sludge and major debris has been removed from houses and roads, most homes still have no glass in their windows or screen doors. To make things worse, there are big black blowflies swarming everywhere — horribly highlighting the worsening sanitary conditions.

Undaunted, the Shangri-La volunteers, all kitted out with protective masks, goggles, rubber gloves and with steel-reinforced workboots, immediately went into action.

Divided into two groups, regardless of rank or job title, half of the employees shoveled sludge from the roadside gutters. It smelled of sewage, and all sorts of things came out with it — plates, kitchen knives and beer bottles, even an imitation rose. The volunteers picked all such items out of the foul goo, which they then poured into heavy-duty polyethylene bags. Dozens of bags were soon filled up.

Meanwhile, the other Shangri-La team went out to cut grass in an attempt, they told me, to deter the flies from laying more eggs there. They also handed out to residents 100 mosquito nets they had brought from Tokyo.

After eating a packed lunch of locally-sourced fare while batting away flies, the sludge squad resumed their unsavory toil while the other volunteers rationed out to residents some 90 boxes of fresh vegetables donated by the hotel’s suppliers. This operation soon attracted a long line of mostly elderly folk toting shopping bags in front of a community center, and all the vegetables were gone in 10 minutes.

Even though it was only one day’s work, with the team setting off on the 6?-hour return trip to Tokyo at 3 p.m., the whole thing was planned and executed well, and it was obvious that the residents — survivors all, but still beset by suffering — were appreciative of the volunteers’ presence. Everyone who passed by the area acknowledged them, and many voiced words of thanks.

Toshihiko Fujita, a 48-year-old residents’ group leader who was clearly exasperated by the lack of support from local officials, even said: “With all the absurdity going on here, we can only count on private-sector volunteer support, such as yours, in the reconstruction of Ishinomaki.”

The expenses for the trip, which included hiring the bus and buying mosquito nets and all the equipment, was financed by WISH for Japan, a charity fund set up by the hotel after March 11. The fund has raised nearly ¥30 million so far through sales of wrist bands, the contribution of 5 to 10 percent of revenue from different branches of the hotel’s operations, as well as through donations from the public, sister hotels and business partners.

As for the volunteers themselves, some were there during their off-duty time, and some were taking paid volunteer leave given by the hotel. But Krueger singled out one 36-year-old employee, Atsushi Shibata, for particular mention as being a big inspiration for the hotel’s staff.

Shibata, the assistant front-desk manager, has a network of NGO contacts that he has made during about 10 short volunteer trips to devastated parts of the Tohoku region, which he took in his own time since the end of March.

Asked about the challenges of corporate as opposed to private volunteering, Shibata admitted that whatever companies do by way of disaster relief is viewed by some people as a public relations exercise.

“We cannot deny that PR element 100 percent, though we say we are from the Shangri-La only when we are asked, and we just report our activities on the Web,” Shibata said during the return bus trip.

“I think companies can approach volunteering in many ways,” he continued, “as long as they stay focused on the goal of meeting the local needs. This time, we were able to mobilize a large group of people (because we organized it as a corporate event), which was good, because locals are worried about fewer volunteers coming to Tohoku now that more than 100 days have passed since March 11.”

It was obvious, too, that Krueger — the German who has headed up the Tokyo hotel since it opened in 2008 — was also leading by example, having made three private volunteering trips to Tohoku with Shibata prior to this one.

Krueger said he believes that volunteering has benefits for employees as well, and he aims to keep organizing trips like this once every month.

“It’s very easy to collect money and say that 5 or 10 percent of our revenues go to charity,” he said. “But it’s much more meaningful to donate your time, because you can see that (even) in very small ways you can make a difference.”

Can companies fill the void left by the flight of private-group volunteers?

Certainly, it will be interesting to see in the coming months how many of the companies who have introduced volunteer leave, paid or unpaid, and who have pledged support for Tohoku in the aftermath of the disasters, will stick to their commitment.

Pasona, a major temp employment agency, organized volunteer trips for its employees in May and June, with 65 in all joining the three-day trips, during which they cleaned the mud from swamped homes and planted sunflower seeds in Higashi-matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.

Pasona allows its staff and those on its books to take up to three months of unpaid leave for volunteering in Japan — and up to two years, also unpaid, for overseas volunteer work, said company spokesman Satoshi Fujimaki. He added that Pasona plans to keep organizing such trips to Tohoku, for which participants pay around ¥20,000 each time to cover transport and accommodation. On those trips, the volunteers also stop at a few sightseeing spots and a fish market — to help the local economy.

Another household-name company stepping up to the Tohoku challenge is Triumph International Japan. On April 11, the major lingerie-maker introduced a system of paid volunteer leave of up to 14 days for staff, who can use it in making more than one trip to Tohoku.

Astonishingly, though, only one employee — a woman — out of some 3,000 eligible workers has taken this volunteer leave so far, said spokeswoman Yoshiko Masuda. She explained the singularly poor take-up by saying that workers have found it difficult to take a long time off work, and noted that the sole volunteer to date went to Ishinomaki for five days to work in a temporary shelter for homeless pets.

So, while corporate volunteering in Tohoku seems to be sporadic at this point, hopefully more companies will start rising to the challenge.

And with the number of volunteers now falling rapidly even though personpower is desperately needed, whether corporate volunteering is for PR reasons or not is really beside the point.

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.