[From July Issue 2011]

The Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, with its epicenter off the coast in the Pacific Ocean, was the worst disaster in Japan since the end of World War II with 23,000 dead or missing. Miyagi Prefecture was hit the hardest, with 15,000 people dead or missing and most of its coast swept away by the tsunami. In Ishinomaki, the biggest city in the prefecture after Sendai, more than 5,700 people are dead or missing.

Volunteer activities in the city are carried out using the “Ishinomaki method,” which is attracting attention. The method effectively organizes volunteer staff so they can engage in activities that meet the needs of the victims in the stricken area. The spacious campus of Ishinomaki Senshu University is being used as its base, with about 500 to 1,000 volunteers on weekdays camping out on its sports fields.

NGO Peaceboat was the first group to arrive in Ishinomaki after the disaster and is sending down more than 100 volunteers every week from Tokyo. Coordinator UENO Yoshinori feels three fortunate elements combined to make the Ishinomaki method successful in engaging so many in volunteer activities.

First, the city was able to secure land for its base. Ishinomaki Senshu University and Ishinomaki City had been indiscussions for more than a year about how to use the campus in case of a tsunami. The city had been expecting to use that space to store relief goods, as a heliport, and as a good location to house about 1,000 volunteers. The inland university with its spacious grounds met the requirements and, in preparation, possible supply routes were prepared in case of a disaster. The fact that the mayor of Ishinomaki City, KAMEYAMA Hiroshi had been a professor at the university helped in obtaining the institution’s full cooperation to facilitate the intake of the volunteers after the earthquake.

Secondly, Ishinomaki City Social Welfare Council (SWC), a local organization set up to liaise with volunteers, responded flexibly to offers of help. ABE Yoshinori, subsection chief in charge of planning and general affairs looks back and says, “Since the damage was so extensive, we had no reason to decline offers from organizations coming to help us.” SWC is in a position to directly listen to the problems of the local people. “When people speaking standard Japanese arrive, the locals become rather reserved. It’s easier for them to communicate their needs to people who speak the same dialect,” says Abe explaining the merits of dialogue between people of the same area.

Thirdly, Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council (IDRSC) was established. In fact, it is impossible to talk about the Ishinomaki method without mentioning the IDRSC. More than 220 NPOs and NGOs have registered with this council as of May 17, 2011. If these organizations act independently, they run the risk of having two or more groups engaging in the same activity at the same time at the same place. In order to prevent that, the organizations get together in the evening and report on how their activities are progressing.

ITO Shuki, the chairperson of IDRSC had been aware that it would be difficult to divide the requests brought to SWC and IDRSC among the NGOs and NPOs so that the tasks would match up with each organization’s particular strengths. “Each NGO or NPO were created with a particular purpose in mind, they have a strong sense of purpose and specialized skills to deal with specific problems. Our work is to match their skills to the needs of the local people,” says Ito.

Volunteers first register at the SWC or the IDRSC. There are nine subcommittees of the IDRSC, handling medical care, mental health care, transportation, childcare, hot meals, “mud-busting” work (raking out sludge from houses and shops), relaxation, a psychological assessment survey and daily life support (involving the distribution of goods). As members of organizations, people participate in activities they are suited to.

Among the subcommittees, the one with the biggest numbers of volunteers registered is mud-busting.Flooded buildings have sludge in them and it is hard work getting rid of it. Just looking at this state of affairs made many locals feel that they had lost their drive to “get back on their feet” or to“carry on.”

In the shopping streets in the center of the city, many shopkeepers looked at the interior of their shops covered with sludge and decided they could not stay in businesses. In response to the situation, SWC and IDRSC dispatched mud-busters. Many shops could have sludge cleared in a day or two with the help of a unit of about five people. There have been cases in which shopkeepers, who had given up, started to make plans to reopen their businesses, after their shops were cleaned up by the volunteers.

One of the organizations that is sending the biggest number of mud-busters out is Peaceboat, although the original purpose of the NGO is to promote international friendship through cruises around the world. “We are used to deploying many members of staff and to coordinating transport,” says Ueno. The organization has also brought in chefs who have previously worked aboard its ships. Ueno feels that the abilities of the staff is matching the work, keeping Peaceboat active while still maintaining its identity.

Matching the needs of the local people with the abilities of volunteers sounds simple but it is a difficult task, which has not often been discussed. The Ishinomaki method has shown that local administration can join in the effort by acting as a bridge to connect the power of the volunteers with the needs of the local people, making their activities more effective.

IDRSC does not have the kanji meaning “city” in its name. Ito says that this decision was made with the idea of applying this method to other areas. Now 16 years have passed since the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. During that time the general public felt inspired to volunteer their help; now a developed form of volunteerism is helping the reconstruction of the Tohoku area.

Ishinomaki Disaster Recovery Assistance Council
Ishinomaki City Social Welfare Council

Text: ICHIMURA Masayo


















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