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Tohoku Disaster Volunteers: the Force Behind the Scenes

The Japanese term for year-end office drinking parties – “forget-the-year parties” – seems especially apt this year, a year that most people in Japan would like to be able to forget.

Although more than nine months have already passed since northeastern Japan was devastated by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami, some areas look as though they have hardly made any progress at all toward recovery.

That’s one reason Toshiharu Eguchi won’t be trying to “forget the year” by partying it up this year. The Fukuoka native has traveled more than a thousand kilometers to Kawai Camp, a converted high school in Iwate (ee-WAH-tay) Prefecture, to volunteer his services wherever they might be needed.

“The first month or two, I was doing mainly debris removal,” he says. “Then I spent a month or two visiting temporary prefab housing to talk to residents. Recently I’ve been doing mostly photograph recovery.”

Eguchi has committed himself to the long term: he arrived only a week after Kawai Camp opened its doors in July, and intends to stay until the end of March 2012. And he is not alone—volunteers at Kawai come from nearly every prefecture in the country, many staying months at a time. Most are repeaters. Some, who live in nearby towns or prefectures, come every weekend.

Kawai Camp is run by the municipal Council of Social Welfare office inMorioka, the prefectural capital, a 90-minute drive away. In addition to locally-based staff, staff from Morioka work at Kawai on a rotating basis. The camp itself provides a unique solution to a significant problem faced by volunteers: cost. A one-way bullet-train ticket 535 km from Tokyo to Morioka costs 14,000 yen, or about US$180. Volunteers are responsible for their food and, in many cases, their accommodations, all of which can add up quickly.

Although volunteers are still responsible for their own travel costs, Kawai provides free accommodation in the form of heated rooms with tatami-mat sleeping areas—a far cry from the condition of pre-Kawai Camp volunteers, who mainly slept in their cars. Cooking is done by the volunteers in the school’s home-economics kitchen, with refrigerators, outdoor shower stalls, and even washing machines provided by the Red Cross.

The daily routine is simple: every evening, Kawai staff post lists of volunteer jobs (arranged through matching with requests from the community) in the hallway for volunteers to sign up. The following morning after a short meeting, volunteers are dispatched to their respective destinations, buying sandwiches or rice balls along the way for lunch. After checking in with the volunteer centers in the respective communities—which can be nearly an hour away from Kawai—the volunteers start their working day at10:00 and finish at 3:00. They report back to the local volunteer centers, then head to the supermarket to buy groceries for dinner and breakfast before the drive back to Kawai. Lights-out is at 10:00.

By all accounts, the system is working well. Kawai Camp imposes minimal rules on the volunteers, who in turn take responsibility for the condition of the facilities. The often raucous kitchen area is testament to the new friendships forged here and the general spirit of camaraderie that prevails. Many of the volunteers have initiated their own side projects, such as collecting Christmas trees for residents of temporary housing, or putting on a charity concert.

 But there is a sense of unease underlying all the obvious success. Kawai Camp is only funded through the end of March 2012, when the Japanese fiscal year ends. After that, no one is sure what will happen. If the budget is not renewed, the extra staff hired for Kawai may have to find new jobs. Some of the long-term volunteers like Eguchi, who may have taken a prolonged leave of absence or left their jobs altogether, will look for new jobs, as April is traditionally when new employees are hired in Japan. The impact the volunteers have had so far is unquestionable, though, and there is little doubt that many will keep coming back as long as there is a place for them to come back to.

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About Views from Tokyo

I'm an independent Tokyo-based journalist and writer. My main interests are human rights, international relations, east Asia (especially China and North Korea), and the recovery efforts in Tohoku.

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