The disaster known as the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred at 2:46pm on 11 March 2011, with an epicenter located approximately 72 km off the Northeastern region of Oshika Peninsula in Japan. Almost 1 million volunteers helped in the recovery process after this disaster, which killed 15,852 people and left 3,287 people missing.
The earthquake’s magnitude was 9.0 on the Richter scale - the most powerful earthquake ever known to have hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world. It triggered huge tsunami waves which reached heights of up to 40 meters and travelled up to 10 km inland in three prefectures: Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima. It damaged 1,145,589 buildings (130,000 of which collapsed).
To help recover from this nightmare, the Council of Social Welfare (SHAKYO), present in every prefecture, city, town and village in Japan demonstrated how crucial volunteerism is to face such a situation. As a non-profit private organization, the Council takes a leading role in promoting social welfare in the field and allows participation of community members and beneficiaries of social welfare.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the local councils of social welfare in all three prefectures affected by the disaster created a total of 101 “Disaster Volunteer Centers”. The National Council for Social Welfare and the local authorities supported them in order to facilitate the effective coordination between individual volunteers, volunteer involving organizations and other stakeholders, focusing on people’s needs.
Individual volunteers were assigned a wide range of tasks through the disaster volunteer centers, including: running soup kitchens, distributing food and aid items, cleaning up (debris, mud, fish), recovering personal effects from the debris, returning to normal life, supporting the management of the evacuation center, conducting needs assessment, providing massages, footbaths, mental health care, child care, gender protection, looking after stray pets, supporting
people with disabilities, entering the personal information of those missing into the people-finder program, organizing recreational activities such as sports events, creating web-portals, assisting with personal hygiene, running a café and a FM radio station, producing and distributing newsletters, collecting and disseminating information, supporting the weaving of fishing nets and other hand crafts, assisting foreign volunteers and translating information for them, and distributing daily life items for temporary housing.
Most of the work would have never been possible if people had not invested their time and efforts to help
the victims. Individuals wishing to volunteer in the disaster affected areas were encouraged to register at the Disaster Volunteer Centers. The total number of individuals who did so from 11 March 2011 to 11 February 2012 has reached 926,200.
This registration mechanism has been developed by the lessons learned from the experience of the Great Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) earthquake in 1995. At that time, over 1 million individuals visited Kobe for volunteering in the first two months after the disaster.
The Government of Japan recognized the importance of volunteerism in disaster response, and volunteerism has since been well integrated into the Disaster Measures Basic Law and Basic Disaster Prevention Plan, which spell out a framework for disaster-related volunteer activities. Registration mechanisms such as the one that was set up in Fukushima facilitate volunteering in the form of civic engagement in response to natural disasters throughout the country.
But volunteers don’t show up only after disasters. The Voluntary Action Centers set up by each local council of social welfare assist people wishing to volunteer by providing them with information and guidance aimed at supporting the activities of local volunteer groups and non-profit organizations.
As of now, about 170,000 volunteer groups and 7.3 million individual volunteers have registered with the local Voluntary Action Centers and routinely carry out their volunteer activities in the areas of child care, children/youth, women, aged groups, people with disabilities, disaster risk reduction, community development, environment, and international cooperation.