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Japan: Waiting for the Right Moment to Help

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

In the days following the disastrous earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th, many are asking, “What can I do?”.

Chodo, who works as a geographic information systems technician in Osaka, calls for people to quell the instinctive and emotional reaction to head towards the disaster area. In “To the kindhearted young, who want to help the afflicted -My shallow-minded experience- ” (被災者の役に立ちたいと考えている優しい若者たちへ~僕の浅はかな経験談~), he shares a personal story of what he learned from volunteering during the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. Published on March 14th three days after the earthquake hit, the post received over 300 comments in two days, most of which thank the blogger for his calm, thought-provoking words.

This post was translated in its entirety with permission from the author. All links were added by Tomomi Sasaki for reference.

When the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit, I was in my third year at high school and it was the day after the preliminary university entrance examinations.

An ominous sound woke me from my dreams, like many trucks driving towards my way from afar. The next thing I knew, the entire house was shaking. I was routed out of bed by my father, opened the front door, shut the gas valve and switched on the TV. The Hanshin Expressway had collapsed. I still remember the fear of the way the house shook, the way the images from the TV didn’t seem real, and the quietness of the city.

On that day, I was supposed to go to school to mark my own exams and be interviewed for the second-stage exams. I hesitated but got on my bicycle and left for school. Water was overflowing from the moats of Osaka Castle.

Damage from the Great Hanshin Earthquake Photo: Coursey of Flickr user PapiGiulio, taken January 17th, 1995 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Everything was as usual when I arrived at the school. Some students hadn’t shown up but the teacher didn’t say anything about it. Everyone got on with marking their papers and taking the interviews. Our schoolmates who lived in Sannomiya and Nishinomiya hadn’t come to school but that was to be expected. During recess, two friends and I decided to head to the affected area after the secondary exam for volunteer work.

When school ended, our physics teacher started to speak in a deliberate manner. “Many teachers and students from this school were the victims of the earthquake and some couldn’t make it to school today. Some of you may think that completing today’s exams signals the end of your role as a jukensei [a student taking entrance examinations]. Some of you, seized by a sense of justice and chivalry, may be thinking about charging into the disaster sites. I am not saying that this is the wrong thing to do, but in all honestly, you will not be of any help. Now, if you still wish to help, please listen carefully to what I am going to say.

First of all, take food with you, and come back when it runs out. Do not touch the food that’s intended for the afflicted people. Take a sleeping bag and a tent. The dry floors belong to the afflicted. It is not for you to sleep on.

Once you’ve registered as a worker, don’t ever refuse a job regardless of what it involves. In group work, there’s no greater disruption than someone leaving the job midway. If you can promise what I have just described, then perhaps you can make a difference because you are young, bright, and strong, even if you may not have any particular skills.

However, I would rather if you didn’t go there and and instead, focused on your examinations. Go to university to acquire specialized knowledge and skills, and grow to become somebody that can prevent disasters in 10 or 20 years time.”

His exact words are gone from my memory but even now, I remember his message with great clarity.

As our teacher said, we ended up being absolutely useless.

We distributed rationed bread, helped the elderly get around, cleaned the shelters, and did other various chores but the food that we had brought ran out in five days. We didn’t take baths, but we slept in the shelters because we were told that sleeping elsewhere just created additional security problems. Issues related to infrastructure for daily living and removing debris were solved with incredible force and speed by the fire crews and self defense forces. Our existence there was as if suspended in mid-air, and we were treated as kids who came to ‘play’ at being volunteers. There were other young people who came to the diaster areas with no provisions and who refused to do dirty jobs. I don’t think we were that different from them in terms of how useful we were.

What we learned on site was that having people who “wished for people to do something” and people who “wanted to do something for them” did not mean that there would be progress. For people to take action, there needs to be someone who can “manage people”. We did not have that piece of knowledge, which anyone with work experience would take for granted.

Crushed by reality, we left. I studied another year for the exams and enrolled in a university in Kyoto. My passion towards the disaster area had faded away by then. As it turned out, our sense of justice had well intentions but were fleeting. I will be honest in confessing it. Our feelings for Kobe couldn’t last for even a year.

Following this earthquake [on March 11th], I’m sure there are many young people who feel they want to be of help to the victims, that they want to do something for the afflicted areas. However, I plead that you don’t act in haste. There is nothing that you can currently do in the afflicted areas. There, your presence itself will be a nuisance. The only things you can do at the moment is to donate money and blood. That is still a wonderful form of contribution, and I would like for everyone to take these actions with pride.

And I would like you to retain that motivation for one year. If that passion still remains with you at that point, then you are on the road to make a real impact. Many severe problems will bubble up even more so than immediately after the quake: caring for temporary housing, psychological distress of the afflicted people, helping with everyday life problems, and more. NPOs will be established to solve such problems. It’s at that point that afflicted areas will need people who “can’t do anything but kindheartedly want to help”. It might end up being a catalyst that changes the course of your life.

After many twists and turns, I became a geographic information systems technician. The field of specialization may be different, but I’m finally in a position where I can contribute to disaster prevention in some ways. I think… that I am a little bit more helpful to people than I was back then.

American Red Cross volunteers at Yokota Air Base Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user Official U.S. Air Force, taken March 11th, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mar 15, 2011 Addendum

Thank you so much for the overwhelming response. I’m glad to read that there are others who have had similar experiences: it’s belatedly soothing the solitude that I felt back then.

I wrote that you should wait for a year but it seems you don’t have to wait that long. Some NGOs and support organizations are already acting towards accepting volunteers. Although of course, the beginning of volunteer work will have to wait for a bit longer.

It is my hope that people who are healthy, strong and passionate work hand in hand with “people who manage people”, making full use of their abilities. Also, to think about supporting reconstruction from along term perspective, in terms of years rather than months, is very important.

The blogger would like to stress that the post is a personal opinion that conveys the importance of volunteering in the right place and the right time.

For those that can help with donations, please refer to these lists in Japanese and English.

Thanks to Naoki Matsuyama and Eric Yap for contributing to the translation.

This post is part of our special coverage Japan Earthquake 2011.

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