Recovery in Japan: Voices from the Ground

Tsunami survivors Shota Endo (L) and Kei Endo eat relief food outside an evacuation center suffering from power cuts in Shichigahama town, Miyagi prefecture on April 8, 2011. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, July 21, 2011 — The crucial participation of NGOs and other civil society organizations in Japan's disaster relief was the theme of an Asia Society public forum that featured firsthand accounts of the relief efforts following the catastrophic tsunami and earthquake that struck northeastern Japan last March. 

Participants included Kazuaki Kubo, Director General of the Japan Foundation New York; Irene Hirano, President, US-Japan council; Noboru Hayase, Chief Executive Officer, Osaka Voluntary Action Center (OV AC); Fukiko Ishii, President, Sakura-Net; and Tae Namba, Director, President’s Office, Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA). The event was moderated by Tatsuaki Kobayashi of the Japan Foundation, New York.

Ishii emphasized the necessity of civil society action, maintaining that such assistance is crucial in cases where government response has been particularly lacking.

Since the March 11 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunamis devastated coastal regions in Japan, Hayase said through interpreters, 358 organizations and 500,000 volunteers have provided assistance in the region. Disaster victims have recieved $3.7 billion USD in direct contributions, and $325 million USD have been contributed to non-profits and disaster volunteer centers operating in the disaster-stricken areas.

Namba said that doctors and other medical personnel working through AMDA had been providing free care up to April 20. Starting June 1, the patients have been handed over to local doctors and hospitals operating under Japan’s National Health Insurance system as part of the return to normalcy.

Hayase, though grateful for civil society relief efforts that have been key to the recovery of affected regions, emphasized the need for long-term response.

"About 300 billion yen (about $3.7 billion) has been paid out, but since there are so many victims, each victim only receives about 400,000 yen (about $5,100), which is not enough to support the victims and their needs," said Hayase.

The earthquakes have affected the livelihood of locals; as many as 20,000 fishermen have been affected and 160,000 remain unemployed, with many who are employed only working short-term jobs in cleanup efforts. Only long-term economic support can help get their lives back on track in the long run.

"There are so many people who are living on the fisheries, but they lost their ships, they lost their seafields," said Kobayashi. "Nothing remains, but people are still struggling to survive."

"The nuclear issue a very serious issue, but at the same time, please buy Japanese food and Japanese products. It's completely okay, Japan is a very safe country and are really careful in exporting... if you buy something from the Tohoku area it would really help with the recovery."

The reports also contained glimpses of a heartwarming side of disaster relief efforts. Ishii held up a wind chime, explaining that it was made by younger evacuees to contribute to the relief efforts. Each featured an encouraging message; the one Ishii held read "Let's move together one step at a time."

In the closing remarks, Kobayashi reiterated that it is never too late to act; NPOs such as the Japan Center for International Exchange have set up ad-hoc funds dedicated to supporting long-term reconstruction activities.

(Please note: Donations can still be made at and at Japan Society's Earthquake Relief Fund.)

Reported by Bryan Le