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Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center For the Maximum Utilization of the Power of Disaster Relief Volunteers!

PBV President Takashi Yamamoto.

PBV President Takashi Yamamoto.

This month's Close Up features the Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV), an organization registered as a general incorporated association. PBV was established by Peace Boat in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake; the parent entity itself being a non-governmental organization (NGO) that promotes international exchanges and communication, it being well-known for its "international exchange and communication cruises." In inheriting the Peace Boat belief of "borderless disaster relief and support that contributes to peace around the world and within its different regions," by going beyond simply dispatching volunteers to devastated areas, PBV aims to develop new systems for disaster relief volunteers while continuing its activities. On this occasion, we spoke to PBV President Takashi Yamamoto about the organization's disaster relief and support activities in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. We also spoke to him regarding the potential that disaster relief volunteers offer.

Q.Please tell us how and why PBV was established.

The PBV offices.

The PBV offices.

A.What led Peace Boat to get involved in disaster relief and support was the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. Originally, Peace Boat was not an NGO that conducted emergency disaster relief and support activities. However, in the wake of the aforementioned disaster, it engaged in its first relief and support activities for a period of about three months, the location being Nagata Ward in Kobe City. Actually, I should mention that I am originally from Nishinomiya City in Hyogo Prefecture, thus my family home was partially destroyed in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. I remember wondering at the time if there was something that Peace Boat should be doing in response to the unfolding events. Following on from Peace Boat experiences dealing with the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, the organization conducted disaster relief and support activities around the world, responding to events such as major earthquakes in Turkey, the impact of earthquakes off Sumatra on the island of Sri Lanka, and Hurricane Katrina in the United States, etc.

Speaking more specifically about the Great East Japan Earthquake, Peace Boat representatives entered Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture some six days after the quake, carrying our first relief supplies of blankets, etc. Once there, however, it was apparent that there were simply not enough materials or people to cope. As somebody experienced in disaster relief and support activities, the situation confronting us in Ishinomaki was the worst I have ever seen. We realized it would be necessary for relief and support activities to be undertaken on a significant scale. It was such circumstances that led Peace Boat to establish a separate entity called "Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center," in order to offer as much long-term support as possible.

Q.So in response to the disaster you immediately called for volunteers?

The first volunteer orientation session conducted on March 23rd, 2011. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

The first volunteer orientation session
conducted on March 23rd, 2011.
©Peace Boat Disaster Relief
Volunteer Center (PBV)

A.From just after the Great East Japan Earthquake through until around the Golden Week holiday, it was said that "it was still too early for volunteers to go" to the devastated areas. However, after we reached the region on March 17th, we did not feel that this argument was valid. For Peace Boat, an organization that has conducted ship cruises of international exchange and communication, there is the basic belief that social problems can be resolved and international understanding deepened via activities that seek to move people. For us, people are helped by others going to them and pitching in. In such circumstances, we felt the most important issue was establishing what potential volunteers could offer. Thus, we quickly made a decision to gather together volunteers who could be dispatched to Ishinomaki. Accordingly our first orientation session was held on March 23rd at the Peace Boat offices in Takadanobaba. We only called for volunteers via social media channels over a period of three days. However, we managed to attract more than 300 people interested in volunteering to our first orientation session.

Q.What matters were of concern in the dispatching of volunteers?

A.As might be expected, early on conditions in the devastated areas were quite severe. Thus, we took a rather cautious approach in our dispatch of clearly-defined volunteer groups, going so far as to create a number of precautions to ensure that we did not place a drain on local resources in the devastated areas, nor cause any inconvenience through our presence. Against the wider undercurrent that said volunteers should not go to the devastated areas, if by our sending groups their presence resulted even in the slightest criticism, any benefit offered by our volunteers would quickly dissipate. Thus, we clarified responsibilities within our organization by having our Tokyo office responsible for receiving potential volunteers and orientating them. Meanwhile, our assets in Ishinomaki were responsible for the organization and management of our volunteers in the devastated areas.

Volunteers equipped with food, tents, sleeping bags, and cold weather gear, etc., getting on a bus to Ishinomaki. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Volunteers equipped with food, tents, sleeping bags, and cold weather gear, etc.,
getting on a bus to Ishinomaki.
©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Q.Concerning the volunteers, what factors were you particularly mindful of?

Volunteers handling relief supplies. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Volunteers handling relief supplies.
©Peace Boat Disaster Relief
Volunteer Center (PBV)

A.In that there were prohibitions on alcohol consumption and volunteers were expected to gather in the morning to help clean up around our operational headquarters, I suppose that in some respects we were rather strict. However, we were not in the position of exercising command over our volunteers. Thus, concerning volunteer attitudes and precautions taken, etc., we had our volunteers engage in activities based on their clear understanding and agreement of what was occurring. As such, we were very careful to instill a sense of accountability among our volunteers.

Q.And you also emphasized safety among your volunteers?

A.In actual fact it was the foreign volunteer who first picked up on the safety issue. We were advised that if nothing was done, sooner or later accidents would occur. We were introduced to an Australian rescue specialist who had worked with Japanese fire brigade and police units. This gentleman kindly created an English language safety manual for relief volunteers which we translated into Japanese and then used. There were a lot of volunteers for whom working in a disaster zone was something completely new. Thus, the issue we placed the greatest emphasis upon was that volunteers were able to ensure their own safety.

Q.Would one distinguishing feature of the Great East Japan Earthquake be the number of foreign volunteers who responded to the disaster?

A.If you think of Japan's past disasters, perhaps this time was the first for us to experience both so many foreign volunteers and so much support coming from overseas. In the case of PBV, we also publish information in English, and for the Great East Japan Earthquake, we did not just see volunteers coming from the foreign community here in Japan, rather people also hastily decided to come from overseas. In a situation where it was even difficult for Japanese people to grasp what was happening, I must admit that initially I was also worried about non-Japanese speakers going to the devastated areas. That being said, however, because we felt we could leverage the strong motivation of such people who were willing to volunteer in a strange country, PBV developed processes that allowed us to proactively engage foreign volunteers. In terms of overcoming language issues, I feel it was significant that Peace Boat has volunteer interpreters and instructors who teach English conversation programs on Peace Boat cruises, etc. Because it was easy for us to gather together such people proficient in languages, it was rather easy to accept foreign volunteers without being overly concerned about language issues. By adopting the approach of assigning volunteer interpreters to each of our teams, in 2011 alone we were able to welcome volunteers from some 52 different countries and regions.

International volunteer teams. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

International volunteer teams.

A volunteer team from Sri Lanka. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

A volunteer team from Sri Lanka.

©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Q.Would another distinctive feature of the Great East Japan Earthquake be that businesses also dispatched volunteers?

Volunteers on the way to work. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Volunteers on the way to work.
©Peace Boat Disaster Relief
Volunteer Center (PBV)

A.Up until now, when disasters have occurred businesses have come forward with both monetary donations and the provision of relief supplies. However, in most instances the Great East Japan Earthquake represented the first occasion for many businesses to go so far as to dispatch their own employees as volunteers. One contributing factor to such a turn of events is a stronger interest among business towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices. Indeed, there were a number of ways in which businesses dispatched their volunteers. Some dispatched them in connection with the business interests of individual companies, while others recruited volunteers from within their ranks and dispatched them in accordance with employee-leave provisions designed to encourage participation in volunteer activities, etc. Depending on the business, I felt there was significant potential offered by the dispatch of volunteers. That being said, however, rather than companies dispatching volunteers due to monetary contributions being made to relief efforts of hundreds of millions of yen, I feel it is very important that employees go to devastated areas due to a personal desire to contribute to relief efforts.

Q.And I have heard that you have commenced a development program for disaster relief volunteers?

A.For the Great East Japan Earthquake, the major factor that prevented more volunteers being accepted for work in the devastated areas was a profound lack of on-site leader numbers. Thus, in preparing for future disasters, to a certain extent we have to develop leaders who can manage people, such resources being necessary to increase our capacity to accept volunteers. For this reason we have commenced a disaster relief volunteer leadership program. Furthermore, volunteer leadership is not just a domestic issue for Japan. This was borne out by our experiences with Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern United States at the end of last year. When PBV dispatched bilingual staff and leaders in response to Hurricane Sandy, responders in the United States happily welcomed our contribution because they had struggled to manage the number of people who wished to volunteer. For the purpose of further increasing the potential of international disaster relief volunteers, we feel that it is important that steps be taken so that leadership training etc., can be offered in many more languages.

Scenes from PBV leadership training. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Scenes from PBV leadership training.
©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Q.Please tell us about your vision of the future?

Volunteers engaged in removing sludge and cleaning up. ©Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV)

Volunteers engaged in removing
sludge and cleaning up.
©Peace Boat Disaster Relief
Volunteer Center (PBV)

A.Based on our experiences in Ishinomaki, I feel that it has been proven that if volunteers are well-organized, they represent an extremely valuable human resource. For example, when clearing sludge from individual homes and stores, such activities represent help being given to specific individuals. As such, these are not activities that military units or local governments can readily engage in. When asked who should pitch in and help in such circumstances, the only people in a position to respond are volunteers. Concerning what volunteers can do and their potential, the range of possible tasks far exceeds what everybody imagines. In order to maximize this potential, efforts must be made to learn how volunteers are best organized. From the global perspective, moreover, it is only in Japan that volunteers play such significant roles in disaster relief and support. When disasters occur, only Japan has the systems in place that allow local government social welfare councils to establish "disaster relief volunteer centers." Both as a Japanese organization that benefitted greatly from the wide variety of support forthcoming from overseas after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and also as a single Japanese person; I feel it important that the lessons we have learned in this disaster be disseminated globally.

Q.Please give a final message to our readers.

A.In addition to helping an individual ensure their own safety, acquiring basic disaster relief volunteer knowledge and techniques prepares them mentally. This gives the individual the confidence required to help others if and when disasters occur. At PBV we offer introductory courses for disaster relief volunteers as well as formal qualifications, etc. I heartily encourage everybody to try these courses because when something unexpected happens, it is very important to know how to react appropriately.