March 11, 2011. This day became an unforgettable day for Japanese people. A massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 15,000 people dead, and over 7,000 people are still missing (as of June 24, 2011).
Since my hometown is in Miyagi prefecture, the area most affected by the disaster, I went back to my hometown and decided to help as a volunteer.
At the beginning, my parents and relatives were skeptical about my volunteer activities. Their generation thinks the government should take initiative for the reconstruction; they see no need for volunteers. I assume this is because their generation experienced rapid economic growth led by the government. The role of civil society was very limited back then.
Volunteerism started catching on after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. Volunteers found ways to get to victims that the government couldn’t reach. Their quick and effective help was appreciated by the victims, and Japanese people started to realize the importance of grass-roots activities.
But even though we learnt about volunteerism after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the concept did not reach the masses, especially the older generation.
When I started helping after this year’s disaster, I talked to many other young volunteers who were university students and young professionals from both public and private sectors. Surprisingly, most of them were doing volunteer work for the first time in their lives. They had heard about “volunteers for disaster relief” after the Hanshin Earthquake, and decided to join this time around. I felt that our generation had reached the stage where they want to take “action.”
The young generation’s spirit of volunteerism is contributing to a changing perception in older generations. Local media reported on our activities frequently, and I talked to my parents and relatives about what I did as a volunteer. As a result, they are getting interested in volunteer work. Some of the staff in the volunteer centers are reporting increased interest from volunteers, since older people are starting to get involved.
In Miyagi prefecture, my main task was cleaning mud from, and disinfecting houses that were still standing. Owners of the houses worked together. Even though they have been severely affected, I’m impressed by their indomitable spirit, and resolve to move forward.
Seniority-based system is still strong in Japan, and younger generations are sometimes considered “immature” or “inexperienced.” However, because they are ready to adopt new concepts and motivated to take action, I can see many positive side-effects in changing how youth are viewed after this disaster.