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Heisei Transformations: 'Era of disasters' gives birth to new aid, volunteers

Takashi Tachibana, center, listens to the story of parent Kazutaka Sato, left, who lost his son in the 2011 tsunami, during a visit to the former Okawa Elementary School building in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in northeastern Japan, on Nov. 22, 2018. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

NAGOYA -- The Heisei era, which began in 1989, saw two large earthquake disasters -- the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit western Japan and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake that devastated the northeastern part of the country. With numerous floods and damage from volcanic eruptions, the last 30 years can be called an "era of natural disasters."

But as regional areas deal with the aftermath of these disasters, the presence of emergency volunteers, who come from other areas and bring strength from "outside," have also increased in number.

At Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan, 84 students and staff lost their lives in the tsunami following the 2011 quake. On Nov. 22, 2018, there was a group of business owners making rounds looking at the school building that has been preserved.

"The children died under the supervision of the school. This building has been left as a symbol of the importance of disaster prevention education," lectured 51-year-old Kazutaka Sato, who lost his then 12-year-old son who was in the sixth grade when the tsunami hit. When the tour ended, Sato appealed to the employers, "Everyone, please do not forget that you are in charge of the lives of your employees in the workplace."

One participant said he would immediately revise the disaster prevention manual at his company after hearing Sato's story. Behind the plan to raise awareness is Takashi Tachibana, 49, a representative of public incorporated association which runs a training and accommodation facility "MORIUMIUS" in the Ogatsu district on a peninsula north of Ishinomaki.

Since opening in July 2015, the organization has provided some 5,000 people nationwide from schools, companies and government bodies with farming and fishing experiences along with opportunities to hear the testimonies of disaster survivors. The purpose behind the activities is to bring liveliness back to a region weakened by disaster and to have participants return home with the "seeds" of disaster prevention awareness.

Tachibana is from the Miyagi prefectural capital of Sendai, and originally had no connection to Ogatsu. He worked as a corporate adviser in Tokyo but after the earthquake on March 11, 2011, he returned to Sendai to find evacuation facilities all over the area lacking food and other supplies. Tachibana, who had run a food distribution firm before working as an adviser, received donations from business partners and used his own personal funds, and moved food stuffs between Tokyo and Sendai in his car. His activities drew the attention of then Ogatsu Junior High School Principal Junichi Sato, 58, who was connected by a mutual acquaintance.

In Ogastu, the junior high was completely destroyed, and the 77 students moved to a temporary facility inland were only provided with one piece of bread and milk per day as school lunch from the Ishinomaki Municipal Government. The area had lost as many as 226 people to the tsunami and had otherwise suffered heavy damage, so even the guardians of the children could not provide lunches. In mid-April, Sato contacted Tachibana desperate for help.

In the 1950s, 12,000 people had lived in Ogatsu, but even before the disaster, the population had shrunk to 4,300 due to the low birthrate and aging, and elderly residents made up some 40 percent of the municipality. While there were 34 designated evacuation centers, only 11 were able to open -- the Ishinomaki municipal workers who were supposed to run the facilities had also been hit by the disaster. Because of this, some had no choice but to live in their damaged homes. "The local government and the region itself was no match for the unprecedented disaster," an Ishinomaki official said.

Each day, Tachibana took food he had made to the students in Ogastu, and even made cakes for their birthdays. "I was so happy to see the kids going through such rough times suddenly smile," he said. "I would like to provide a 'second home' for people from urban areas, and have them visit periodically to revive the town," Tachibana said of opening MORIUMIUS. "When a disaster strikes, you don't know what will happen tomorrow. If that's the case, then I would like to focus on the people and things in front of me. I would like to stay involved with Ogatsu."

What originally drove Tachibana was a desire to provide outside help to the struggling community -- a trend that has grown during the Heisei era. In times of disaster, there are said to be three types of aid -- "self-aid" looking after your own safety, "joint aid" looking out for one another and "public aid" from the national and municipal governments. While the first two have been stressed since the Hanshin earthquake, recent disasters have shown that there is a limit to the resources an area has after a disaster has taken place.

"During the last 30 years of the Heisei era, regional communities have weakened due to declining birthrates, aging and a greater focus on the individual. Can self-aid and joint aid really be expected to serve their function?" questioned regional sociologist Naoki Yoshihara, a professor at Yokohama National University. "Public aid is important, but in reality, those activities have grown smaller, and now a different kind of 'public' power is being called upon." It is under these circumstances that disaster volunteers from "outside" a community, like Tachibana, have come to play such an important role.

Ryota Yorimasa, right, and Masakiyo Murai of the NGO Collaboration Center for Hanshin Quake Rehabilitation discuss the future of volunteering in disaster-hit areas, in Kobe's Hyogo Ward, on Dec. 6, 2018. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

Some are even turning into "professional volunteecrs." Ryota Yorimasu, 30, the representative for the NGO Collaboration Center for Hanshin Quake Rehabilitation, based in Kobe's Hyogo Ward in western Japan, is one of t hem. Run by donations, the center has thus far sent volunteers to over 20 locations.

Born in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, Yorimasa joined the center while attending Kobe University. Through volunteering after the March 2007 Noto Peninsula Earthquake in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, he realized that he could bring joy to elderly victims simply by striking up a conversation with them. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, Yorimasa was invited by former representative Masakiyo Murai, 68, to become an official employee. Believing it was work that truly had to be done, Yorimasa dropped out of university and became the new head of the organization in spring 2015.

In the upcoming new era as well, the chance of a large disaster like a Nankai Trough Earthquake or one centered below Tokyo will only rise. But Yorimasa is still confident. "We continue to consider how to apply the know-how we have inherited (from previous disasters)," he said. "That is our role as professional volunteers."

(Japanese original by Naoto Takeda, Nagoya News Center)

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