OJIYA, Niigata Pref. — Shinichi Kusajima set off for Kobe on Jan. 20, 1995, just three days after the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit the port city and surrounding areas.

He was one of the roughly 1.38 million people from around the country whom Hyogo Prefecture estimates helped out in quake-ravaged areas of Kobe, nine neighboring municipalities and Awaji Island in the first year following the temblor, which resulted in more than 6,400 lives lost and displaced more than 300,000 people.

Kusajima, 39, quit a Tokyo-based organic vegetable distribution company and cofounded the volunteer group Kobe Genkimura. He stayed in the city for three years to support survivors.

He is now a member of the Tsuruoka Municipal Assembly in Yamagata Prefecture and is helping survivors of the earthquakes that struck Niigata Prefecture’s Chuetsu region in October. He set up Chuetsu Genkimura and is putting his experience from Kobe to use.

One of his first activities in Niigata was to provide tents to evacuees who were either sleeping in cars or didn’t want to be crowded into shelters with other people.

“I came up with the tent project because the issue of how to maintain the evacuees’ privacy at shelters was a major problem in Kobe,” he said. Chuetsu Genkimura distributed 700 tents.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake ushered in a new age for volunteer relief activities in Japan, and now hundreds of people rush to help those affected whenever there is a disaster.

Niigata Prefecture said more than 77,000 people registered as volunteers in the two months following the Niigata earthquakes.

Volunteer activities got a boost in 1998 with the enactment of a law enabling nonprofit organizations that satisfy certain criteria to gain government certification and corporate status, thereby helping them to raise funds and boost their credibility. Nearly 20,000 NPOs had such status as of Dec. 31, according to the Cabinet Office.

Masayuki Deguchi, a professor of NPO issues at the National Museum of Ethnology’s Graduate University for Advanced Studies, said volunteer activities have become more systematic thanks to the implementation of the NPO law. It has also facilitated cooperation with the public sector, Deguchi said.

Within a week of the Niigata quakes, disaster volunteer centers were set up in each afflicted municipality, led by public social welfare councils and local NPOs, and assisted by experienced volunteers.

Fumihiko Inagaki, 37, the deputy director of the Yamakoshi Village Disaster Volunteer Center in the city of Nagaoka, said advice from seasoned volunteers helped him handle the flood of people who came from all around Japan to help distribute supplies and food to survivors as well as moving the survivors to new accommodations.

Most of the villagers of Yamakoshi now live in temporary public housing in Nagaoka.

“I knew nothing at the time about volunteer activities, although I had once helped shovel mud out of flooded houses,” said Inagaki, a Nagaoka resident who was unemployed when the quakes hit. “So I’ve kept in close contact with experts who visited our city to ask them what to do and what will happen next.”

Experts say the promptness with which the semipublic volunteer centers were set up in Niigata is an indication that the public sector has come to trust volunteer groups — a considerable step forward compared with the situation right after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, when a lack of trust between volunteer groups and administrators hampered relief and aid activities.

But there are also problems with the Niigata emergency volunteer centers.

Kusajima of Chuetsu Genkimura said the centers should have acted more flexibly to determine and meet survivors’ needs. The centers are only open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., he said.

Toshiaki Tanaka, president of Kobe-based NPO Nippon Volunteer Network Active in Disaster, said the centers should not scale back their activities after survivors move to temporary housing. They are still needed for various forms of support, he said.

Koji Kinefuchi, 54, agrees.

Kinefuchi, who lives alone in a temporary housing unit in Ojiya because his house was damaged by the quakes, said: “It’s very troublesome for me to go to the hospital three times a week for dialysis treatment. My eyesight is weakening, and I don’t know anyone around here.

“Because I feel lonely now, volunteers mean a lot to me.”

Hideya Shinoda, secretary general of the Ojiya City Council of Social Welfare, said the Ojiya Disaster Volunteer Center limited its operations to between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. due to safety concerns and because it had to prepare for the next day’s tasks.

“The emergency Ojiya center closed on Dec. 19,” he said. “But our regular volunteer center, which is part of our council, will take care of the elderly people who live alone.”

Deguchi of the National Museum of Ethnology said local governments and volunteer groups need to understand the differences between the roles they play.

“It’s natural for local governments to offer only standardized assistance through volunteer centers and cut back on such activities at an early stage, because they need to take care of regular (administrative) services,” such as shoveling snow, Deguchi said.

Volunteer groups should handle what the public sector cannot, he said.

Some volunteer groups withdrew from the quake-hit areas when snow started to fall in December.

A major factor hindering the development of volunteer activities in Japan is money. Individuals and corporations that donate to certain designated NPOs get tax breaks, but the hurdles for an NPO to receive that status are high.

After visiting temporary housing units in the city of Ojiya early last week, Ana-Marie Jones, executive director of California-based NPO Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters, said the government should make every effort “to help people realize how important it is to support agencies that have the personal trust” of the people they assist.

Kusajima said that as volunteer groups often take on work that should be provided by the public sector, such tasks should be considered public services and financially rewarded. He wants professional volunteer activities coordinators to become more firmly rooted in Japan.

Deguchi said Japan should introduce a system where residents could offer 1 percent of their income taxes to NPOs they want to support. Such a system already exists in other countries, including Hungary.

“Many volunteer groups have difficulty continuing their activities after leaders who were good at fundraising leave,” the professor said.

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