Tohoku communities hit by the earthquake and tsunami last month are gradually embarking on the road to recovery, with some finally able to call on volunteers outside the region for help thanks to restored infrastructure.

But while these areas will need all the aid they can get to rebuild, some say inexperienced helpers should take extra care to avoid becoming a hindrance to local residents.

“One should be aware of what the locals need and what they don’t need,” Kiyotaka Akazawa, a representative of NPO Youth Vision, told The Japan Times. The not-for-profit group, set up in 1996, has consulted nearly 120 volunteer centers in universities across Japan.

The number of young volunteers heading to the Tohoku region is likely to grow amid reports that the government is preparing to help students join the relief effort. The education ministry is soon expected to ask universities to support students who wish to take part in volunteer activities, such as by granting them academic credit.

“Communicating well with locals is key when it comes to a situation like this,” Akazawa said, stressing that people should avoid acting first without thinking. One example of this, he said, was sending random relief goods to disaster-stricken areas on a whim.

The concept of student participation arose in the wake of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, which encouraged universities and the education ministry to draft measures that would allow students to lend a helping hand.

Although intensive reports and photographic documentation are required to authenticate volunteer experience, many universities have already approved volunteer work as a learning experience worthy of merit.

But aside from the dangers posed by aftershocks and radioactive leaks, many question whether volunteers with no experience can be of help.

Following the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, many cities were in need of help but asked out-of-prefecture volunteers to stay away. This was because many roads had been destroyed and there wasn’t any food, facilities or organization to direct the flow of human help.

Some volunteer centers in the region, including the one in tsunami-struck Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, still haven’t recovered to the point where they can accept outside help.

Meanwhile, Youth Vision’s Akazawa said that in addition to giving academic credit to the students, universities should work to provide a better environment for them.

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