Japan Earthquake-Tsunami Spark Volunteer Boom but System Overwhelmed

Thousands of Japanese use their vacations to volunteer but many turned away.

ByABC News
May 4, 2011, 2:55 AM

TOKYO, May 4, 2011— -- So many Japanese have traded in their vacations for grueling volunteer work in tsunami-ravaged communities that they're being turned away in droves, as the country marks a week-long holiday known as "Golden Week."

"We started getting calls to volunteer from large groups in early April," said Hideo Otsuki, who directs volunteer operations in Ishinomaki city. "We had to set our limit at 1,000 volunteers a day."

Administrators have been so overwhelmed by requests to help, they've had to reject applicants, and ask them to postpone their trips until after the holiday week.

The extended spring break during a string of national holidays in the first week of May is traditionally a time when Japanese families travel out of town to relax, but with the holiday coming less than two months after the March 11 disasters this year, many Japanese have opted to travel northeast to coastal towns hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami.

The death toll from the devastating earthquake and tsunami has climbed to 14,755, while 10,706 are still considered missing, according to Japan's National Police Agency.

At the Iwate Disaster Volunteer Center in Morioka, more than 10,000 people have signed up to work in the past five days, in a country where organized volunteer groups are relatively new.

Volunteers have been tasked with shoveling mud, clearing debris and cleaning homes flooded by tsunami waves.

The center is offering bus services to the disaster areas daily, to avoid additional traffic congestion, although some organized tours are offering their own transportation.

Iwate official Susumi Sugawara said four-day tour packages that include accommodation and bus fare are going for about $232.

In Ishinomaki, much of the debris has been cleared from major roads but piles of trash and rubble still fill residential streets.

About 10,000 people remain in evacuation centers. More than 1,800 homes still have no electricity; 12,656 homes have no water.

Otsuki is pairing volunteers with individual families, so their needs are met directly. Some are helping strip out floors to clear the mud underneath while others are helping to haul damaged furniture.

With limited lodging available, volunteers have pitched tents, filling parking lots already flooded with out of town cars.

Interest in organized volunteer groups first surged in Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. The Japanese rushed to help in the aftermath, but the government was unable to handle the influx of volunteers.

The experience paved the way for a law on nonprofit organizations three years later, allowing citizens to incorporate as legal entities, according to Charles McJilton, founder of Second Harvest national food bank in Japan.

Volunteers in the Tohoku region range from college students to nonprofit groups.

At a 370-year-old Buddhist temple cemetery in Ishinomaki, Junko Sugino, 49, spent the day wiping dirt off Buddhist statues and stone carvings. She dragged crates of mud through narrow lanes between the tombstones.

"I saw the devastation on TV and felt I had to do something," Sugino told the Associated Press. "This is hard work, but it's something that has to be done by people. Machines can't fit into these tiny spaces."

In Ishinomaki, Otsuki hopes such enthusiasm doesn't fade with time. Since March 11, his city has seen a steady stream of volunteers reach out to residents in need of help. The need will continue, he said, long after Golden Week.

"As soon as one task is completed, another one pops up," Otsuki said. "The needs change every day."