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Kobe Earthquake Spawns Wide-Ranging Volunteerism

FEBRUARY 27, 1997

Volunteers work to limit the oil spill's environmental impact. (Photo: Kyodo)

Two years have passed since the Kobe earthquake wreaked havoc upon the city of Kobe and the surrounding region. Right after the quake, people rushed to volunteer their support for efforts to help the victims and rebuild the region. But the public-spiritedness sparked by the earthquake did not end with activities immediately related to the disaster. Rather, the quake has dramatically heightened overall volunteerism, so that people's altruistic instincts are spilling over into many other areas. And the experience gained by volunteers in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake is proving useful in many other volunteer efforts.

Cleaning Up the Japan Sea Oil Spill
At the beginning of January of this year, a Russian tanker capsized off the coast of Shimane Prefecture in western Japan, spilling crude oil that contaminated a broad stretch of ocean and coastline. Less than two months after the accident, a total of over 230,000 volunteers from all over the country have hurried to the scene and cleaned up 36,000 kiloliters of oil.

The majority of the 1.17 million people who participated in various relief efforts during the three months after the Kobe earthquake were not affiliated with any organization and had no previous volunteer experience. The same is true for the oil-spill cleanup, which has seen a high level of participation by individuals who headed for the polluted coastline on their own initiative because they felt personally compelled to lend a hand.

These individuals voice many different reasons for offering their assistance. One volunteer, a 33-year-old man from Kobe who dashed to the site in his family car, said he went "to repay the help we got during the earthquake." Another volunteer, a 15-year-old student at a local junior high school, explained, "It's our ocean that got polluted, so I took time off from studying for my exams to help with the cleanup." Two sisters from Tochigi Prefecture, a 16-year-old high-schooler and a junior-high-school student aged 13, said their father had encouraged them to join in the effort when he spotted a solicitation on the Internet for volunteers. And one 22-year-old male university student from Tokyo said he had been especially eager to help clean up the oil spill because exams had prevented him from volunteering in Kobe after the earthquake.

A year after the Kobe quake, in January 1996, Gunma Prefecture surveyed its residents to determine what percentage had participated in the relief effort and what form this participation had taken. Although the sample size was small--only 5,000 people, of whom 50% responded--the findings were nonetheless noteworthy. In this prefecture located over 500 kilometers northeast of Kobe, some 90.3% of the residents who took part in the multiple-response survey reported they had donated money in response to solicitations, while 9.5% had solicited or collected financial donations themselves, 6.4% had donated supplies and materials, and 0.6% had lent a hand on the scene. And some 82.9% of the respondents said that if a disaster on the order of the Kobe quake were to strike nearby, they would like to assist in the relief effort.

Lending a Hand All Over Japan
The Kobe earthquake spurred a renewed awareness of the importance of establishing mechanisms for accepting volunteer workers from throughout Japan, of taking the individual circumstances of volunteers into account in order to deploy these workers as effectively as possible, and of coordinating efforts with government organizations. The experience of the Kobe quake paved the way for a rapid response to the oil spill off the Japan Sea coast.

When the bow of the oil tanker washed ashore near the town of Mikuni in Fukui Prefecture, a volunteer "oil-spill cleanup center" comprising members of the prefectural branch of the Japan Junior Chamber, a group of volunteers from nearby Hyogo Prefecture, and other organizations participated actively in the removal of the debris. Working with the prefectural and municipal administrations, the cleanup center supported the volunteers, who had come from all over the country, by issuing instructions and providing information, helping them find lodging, and distributing meals. The volunteer center also coordinated the assignment of tasks at the scene of the cleanup. And because it was feared that exposure to the oil might adversely affect the health of the volunteers, their physical condition was monitored by doctors and nurses--also volunteers.

The response not only to the oil spill itself, but also to the many problems caused by it, has been swift and well-targeted. For example, because the spill was expected to have an adverse impact on wildlife, veterinarians from all over the country--representing the Wildlife Rescue Veterinarians Association, regional zoos, and so on--traveled to the scene immediately after the accident; they have since treated numerous animals, including hundreds of aquatic birds.

Widening Scope of Volunteer Activities
Local authorities throughout Japan are now harnessing the power and energy of volunteers for an increasingly wide range of purposes. One example is the city of Otawara, located in Tochigi Prefecture. When a large amount of graffiti was found painted on walls and tennis courts under construction at a local park, the city government announced that it would leave the graffiti intact in order to make citizens think about civic morals. But this announcement caused quite a stir. Not only local citizens, but even people from the Tokyo metropolitan area, urged the city to let them volunteer to help remove the graffiti. Ultimately, that's exactly what happened. In late February of this year, a team of several hundred volunteers from nearby elementary and junior high schools, citizens' groups, and local businesses cleaned up the mess with their own hands.

Another example of communities drawing on volunteer support is Machida City, a Tokyo suburb that is in the process of establishing an international exchange organization. The organization plans to involve volunteers right from the start in planning and carrying out exchange programs, and has enshrined in its founding principles the concept of using volunteers.

Growing recognition of the importance of volunteerism can also be seen in the private sector, where an increasing number of businesses are allowing their employees time off for volunteer activities. And in January of this year, when the National Personnel Authority changed its rules to allow all national government workers up to five days' paid leave per year, volunteer leave became an option for civil servants as well. All national government bodies, and some quick-acting municipal authorities, have already begun implementing volunteer-leave programs.

Meanwhile, the National Diet is now deliberating a bill that proposes to grant nonprofit organizations status as legal entities and accord them preferential tax treatment. All in all, the climate for volunteerism in Japan is becoming more and more hospitable.