The March disasters generated an outpouring of volunteerism unseen since — let alone matched by — what followed the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
From Tohoku to Tokyo, the impact of March 11 shook the country to its foundations. Skyscrapers wobbled like jelly in the megaquake and mountainous tsunami washed away homes, cars and lives along a wide stretch of the Tohoku coast. The destruction, played out constantly on TV and the Internet, was forever etched in the minds of the nation’s people.
The unprecedented disaster prompted an equal measure of volunteerism as even people untouched and living far away from the impact zone took it upon themselves to pitch in and help the survivors.
This effort to pitch in and rebuild the affected areas, experts and volunteer organizations say, has fostered a strong spirit of helping that will aid relief efforts in future disasters.
The March 11 experience also boosted the nation’s charitable spirit toward people overseas, although monetary donations to developing countries did not increase last year and it remains unclear if the growing mood to lend help will translate into more future contributions.
“There will be typhoons, floods and other disasters in Japan. When those happen, those who have helped in Tohoku will find and again put on their work boots and go help,” said Sean Muramatsu, who founded the volunteer group Team Heal Japan in the wake of March 11.
Muramatsu assembles volunteers mainly via Facebook and word of mouth, and has been to the Tohoku region — mainly Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture — 17 times since April.
Team Heal Japan has 180 volunteers and each trip has about 30 participants, he said.
With the recovery effort moving ahead, there are fewer things for volunteers to do than in the first few months, so Team Heal Japan has made fewer trips to the region, he added.
“I now know that I can be of help to someone and will volunteer when other natural disasters happen,” said Yuro Nishimura, 20, a Chuo University student, who has participated in several Team Heal Japan trips.
“The team’s members all have the same volunteer spirit and become friends easily,” he said. “I felt people bonded very strongly through volunteering.”
Kensuke Suzuki, an associate professor of sociology at Kwansei Gakuin University, believes Nishimura and other young people will continue the volunteer movement.
Some experienced the Hanshin quake in Kobe as children in 1995 and have engaged in social services, including picking up roadside trash, a mandatory activity at some junior high and high schools, he said.
“The volunteer spirit was alive in young people before (March 11). The disaster just provided them an opportunity to express it,” Suzuki said.
Startup groups like Team Heal Japan weren’t the only ones to send volunteers to Tohoku.
Large nonprofit organizations — including Peace Boat — also dispatched volunteers to Tohoku, where the tsunami killed at least 20,000 and devastated coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
Peace Boat, a Japanese nonprofit organization that has sponsored volunteer journeys around the world since 1983, organized similar trips to Kobe in 1995. But the Tohoku turnout was unsurpassed.
“We sent volunteers to Kobe, but there was an overwhelming number of people who wanted to engage in the Tohoku volunteer effort,” said Peace Boat spokesman Shigehiro Goda. “We started gathering volunteers on March 20 and held the first information session for applicants on March 23. The session was packed.”
Peace Boat, based in Takadanobaba, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, set up its own volunteer center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas worst-hit by the tsunami. It sent more than 90 buses and 47,000 volunteers from March until the end of October. For the Kobe quake, Peace Boat sent about 10,000 volunteers.
Tohoku-bound volunteers last year who were not part of groups like Team Heal Japan and Peace Boat numbered roughly 780,000 as of the end of November, according to municipal volunteer centers in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. When those of the established groups are added, the overall number reached about 1.17 million, Goda said.
In the Kobe area in 1995, the number was said to be around 1.3 million, but an official count was not compiled, thus such statistics do not paint an accurate comparison with the Tohoku turnout, Goda said.
Media also played a greater role in the 2011 disasters.
The tsunami devastation, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis and footage of the havoc seen on YouTube and shared with friends via social networking sites definitely made it easier to raise awareness of the need for volunteers, he said.
One remarkable difference between Kobe and Tohoku is that 70 companies, including Mitsubishi Corp., registered with Peace Boat to send employees as volunteers last year. In 1995 that number was zero.
“In many cases, employees pushed their employers to amend company rules to make it easy to go volunteer,” Goda said. “I also heard from many participating companies that people who engaged in volunteer work felt more motivated toward their jobs. Some companies are considering making volunteer work a part of new graduates’ training.”
The expanding presence of social networking services also made it easy for untrained volunteer groups, including Muramatsu’s Team Heal Japan, to recruit help.
Some people prefer impromptu groups because they may feel professional organizations are too rigid and stifling, said Kasako, a freelance writer, blogger and photographer, who asked that his last name not be used.
He also applauded the amateur groups for making volunteering more familiar than ever to ordinary people.
Peace Boat’s Goda said volunteers and organizers, as well as disaster-hit municipalities, have learned from the 1995 disaster, making volunteer operations smoother last year.
After 1995, municipalities nationwide set up volunteer centers to receive calls from disaster victims about their needs and to accept and efficiently dispatch aid manpower.
Volunteers last year also learned how to behave in front of survivors. They didn’t sleep in the temporary shelters or eat free meals with the victims as was the case in 1995, Goda said.
Goda said he wants to improve volunteer-municipality coordination by strengthening Peace Boat’s collaboration with local governments.
Japanese made aware of the significance of volunteering also turned their attention overseas, to people permanently in need. However, the rise in volunteerism did not translate into an increase in donations for developing countries because many had already donated funds to Tohoku.
Nonprofit organizations hope the spirit will continue to grow so they can collect more donations in the future.
“Japanese volunteerism has clearly changed,” said Kiyotaka Watanabe, executive director of the nonprofit organization Hunger Free World.
“We now know the water, electricity and food supplies can be cut off. I believe Japanese can now sympathize with children living in hunger better than before.”
Hunger Free World supports people facing famine in South Asia and Africa, including in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso.
The group is expected to net ¥177 million in donations for developing countries in the fiscal year that ends this March, unchanged from a year earlier, Watanabe said.
He said, however, that donations decreased rapidly in the March-June period last year because people’s donation allowance went mainly to Tohoku. To combat this, the group began a campaign in June collecting donations via used postcards, devoting half the funds amassed to Tohoku and the rest to developing countries.
The campaign worked, helping the group recoup the March-June drop in donations in both cash and used postcards, Watanabe said.
The amount donated to large charity groups such as Unicef and World Vision was unchanged because of their name recognition.
“People’s interest was pretty much toward east Japan, but we also got lots of donations for children caught up in the East Africa drought,” UNICEF spokeswoman Tomomi Inoue said.
Meanwhile, Japan International Volunteer Center said donations to developing countries will decrease from a year earlier for the current fiscal year, although the amount in the nine months to December did not decrease as much as feared, spokesman Noriko Hirose said.
Donations to the center’s projects in nine countries, including Laos and Sudan, dropped by more than 10 percent in those nine months, she said. However, donations to Tohoku made up for the loss, and thus the total amount collected by the group was unchanged from a year ago, she said.
Hirose, noting the March disasters boosted people’s charitable spirit, said she had thought carefully about how best to inform the public that war orphans in Sudan and other countries are also desperate.
“Japanese have become much more charity-minded and want to support Tohoku as well as overseas — not just Tohoku,” she said.