As the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disasters slowly start to be addressed, one of the hopeful images is that of young people volunteering. Shaken, literally, out of their daydreams, quite a few young people have signed up to help with recovery in the devastated region and with shelter and aid for evacuees. The numbers may not be large yet, but any number is better than passivity.

Youngsters around the world are prone to listlessness and moodiness, but Japanese young people have seemed especially stuck of late, like Hamlet, inside a thousand small indecisions. The number of hikikomori (shut-ins), futoko (school refusers) and teen suicides remain at tragically high levels. These serious problems are not all going to be cured by cleaning up debris in Tohoku, of course, but volunteering may just be one way to help push some young people out of their doldrums.

Japanese youth now have a chance to pull their energies away from the artificial world of cell phones, video games, Facebook and anime to look more directly at reality — a very frightening reality in this case. By volunteering, young people will connect to others outside their peer group, see life — and death — from varied points of view, and participate in an important social project far beyond their usual experience.

Young people now have genuine heroes to look up to: the hyper-rescue squad, the so-called Fukushima Fifty, the police, Self-Defense Force members and countless leaders and local people who have selflessly donated their time and energy, often at great personal risk, to help others.

Instead of video game characters battling in fantasylands, these people are fighting against the actual forces of nature — hunger and cold. Japanese youth have excellent examples before them here, so let us hope they do not miss this chance to take action in the real world.

Many young volunteers have already signed up, at universities and agencies. Aid organizations need to streamline their applications and put them to work right away, with supervision and patience. Slogans and sentiments are all to the good, but what is needed are feet on the ground and hands in the mess.

Countless volunteers of all ages have already helped turn the disaster toward safety and solutions, but it is the young volunteers who will carry this spirit of selflessness and care into the future.

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