Lifestyle | Japan Pulse

Weekend volunteering just got easier

by Sandra Barron

Staff Writer

“Have you been up north yet?” is a common question, six months after the compound disasters of March 11. Over 700,000 people have not only seen first-hand the devastation wrought by the tsunami in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, they have volunteered.

While volunteers may have met with confusing and even contradictory information at first, there are now quite a few online resources to help match potential volunteers with work that still needs doing. Different government offices are running sites with volunteer information, including the graphically appealing Tasukeai Japan from the Cabinet Secretariat’s Volunteers Coordinator Office, which has general information about how to help and which towns are accepting volunteers. The NPO umbrella organization Japan Civil Network has information about buses that can take groups to the affected areas. Saigai VC has links to government stats and info on volunteer activities as well as links to local volunteer centers.

On the commercial side, Tokyo Walker has set up a site that makes planning a volunteer mission as easy as planning a weekend at a hotspring. The Tohoku Volunteer Yellow Pages lets potential volunteers seek work by clicking on calendar dates and then refining their search by location and by type of  labor. There are buttons for heavy labor like clearing rubble, scraping mud and moving furniture and for less physically demanding work like cleaning and caretaking.

The site provides some things to keep in mind when volunteering, like the importance of making an informed decision about where you’ll go and what you’ll do and leaving emergency contact information with a local volunteer center. It gives the general order of things you need to do, like getting volunteer insurance, double checking that planned transportation routes are accessible and packing your trash out with you. And would it be complete without a sorta cute illustrated guide to the gear you need to bring?

Like at TripAdvisor or other similar word-of-mouth travel websites, participants have uploaded photos and detailed accounts of their experiences. They talk about digging mud out of gutters, washing photos and visiting shelters and listening to people’s stories. Whether the work was grueling or emotionally difficult, many say the experience energized them.

The interface of the Volunteer Yellow Pages is nice and clean, making it easy to find a volunteering trip that suits specific volunteer goals. Tohoku volunteer leader Jay Horinouchi, however, worries that it might be a little bit too inviting. “Last week we had a group of tourist-volunteers come up and drop in unexpectedly to ‘help’ for a few hours at the project we’d been working on for weeks,” he said. “They got in the way.”

He also worries that the site might create unrealistic expectations. “Often we don’t really know what needs to be done onsite until we get there each day. If people choose their activity from a menu, I worry that they won’t be coming with the flexible attitude that’s needed in the field.”

He’s not against it, though. “There are a lot of different projects and centers, so it’s great that there’s a site to organize it all. And there’s still plenty for everyone to do.”