Editorial: Japan must lead in NPO revolution
We have reached the one-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami -- let us pray once again for the souls of those who lost their lives to the disaster, and for the recovery of the devastated Tohoku region and Japan as a nation.
The fact that victims deeply affected by the disasters and the ensuing nuclear crisis have made it this far despite the sluggish response of the central government is a testament to their perseverance and the backbreaking efforts of local governments. There is, in addition, another contributing factor: an unprecedented influx of donations from across the country, and continued assistance provided by various organizations. Of that, we should be proud.
Seventeen years have passed since the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe and Japan witnessed a full-scale emergence of volunteerism. The range of activities that are now being undertaken by volunteers and organizations -- not limited only to the removal of debris or distribution of food and clothing -- is striking.
A major pillar of continued support to disaster-struck northeastern Japan has been nonprofit organizations (NPOs).
Fukushima Kids, for example, offers sleepaway camps for children from Fukushima Prefecture, where the nuclear crisis has yet to be brought under control. The children are invited to stay in Hokkaido and other areas of Japan -- where they are free to play outside without fear of radiation exposure -- during their school holidays. Last summer and this past winter, 518 and 190 children, respectively, participated in the program, away from home and their parents. Preparations are underway for another round during the upcoming spring break. Various NPOs, private companies and local governments have cooperated to make this program possible, and the amount of donations has reached approximately 80 million yen.
In the program, volunteer college students look after the children on a day-to-day basis. As soon as organizers started seeking volunteers in the spring, some 200 students applied. In addition to college students, some high school students also offer their services, coming in to help when they don't have classes at school.
One of the program's founders and its director, Hirohiko Yoshida, 59, recalls the painful memories of trying to set up a similar program when Mount Oyama on Miyakejima Island erupted in 2000, leading to the evacuation of the island's residents. The program did not last long then, and because of this, Yoshida is even more determined to make the current program a success.
"We're going to keep this going for at least five years. We can't just complain (and hope that someone else will do something)," Yoshida says. "We want to nurture children who become the future of Fukushima."
Last summer, Katariba, a nonprofit organization run by people in their 20s and 30s, set up a free "collaborative school" in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Onagawa, which suffered catastrophic damage from the March 2011 tsunami. It hires cram-school teachers who lost their jobs due to the disasters, and is also supported by volunteer college students and former Onagawa residents living in the Tokyo metropolitan area who have taken a leave of absence from their jobs to offer their support. The instructors use empty rooms in an elementary school to teach about 200, or roughly one-third, of the town's elementary and junior high school students.
The key to this set-up is full-on collaboration between the NPO and the Onagawa Municipal Government, as well as the local board of education and schools -- which have traditionally been in competition with so-called cram schools. Parents have also been approaching the group recently to ask how they can help.
"When the children who have experienced the disasters overcome their hardships, they're going to be stronger and more compassionate than most people," says Katariba director and Tokyo resident Kumi Imamura, 32, who has been spending most of each month in the disaster areas. "Our job is to provide them with learning opportunities that will help them become those people."
Last December, Katariba opened their second "collaborative school" in the Iwate Prefecture town of Otsuchi. The organization promotes learning without depending entirely on local governments or schools -- a set-up that is slowly beginning to take root.
Upon learning that autistic children affected by the disasters were having difficulties at evacuation centers, Hiromoto Toeda, 43, director of Musou, a social welfare corporation based in Aichi Prefecture, and Yusuke Ohara, 32, director of nonprofit organization Yuyu based in Hokkaido, moved into action. With volunteer students in tow, they descended upon Tanohata village in Iwate Prefecture, and tried to launch a daycare service for children with disabilities. Iwate prefectural officials, however, were unenthusiastic about the endeavor, saying that there were only five children requesting such care in the entire prefecture.
However, when Toeda and Ohara began daycare services anyway without the support of local government bodies, over 20 children in a village of around 4,000 people began using them. Users were happy with the program for closely catering to the needs of individual children, leading to the launch of a similar program in the Iwate Prefecture city of Miyako, which also has over 20 participants. Many local residents have said that they were not aware of such programs, and now the local government has changed its position and is set to officially place the programs under its jurisdiction.
Local governments had heretofore viewed NPOs as contractors, but the growing trend of the private sector taking action ahead of public bodies is hard to ignore.
Due to a law revision last year, taxpayers can get back up to 50 percent of a donation to an NPO from the national or municipal governments. This, too, is a huge step forward.