(Originally posted to Fukuzawa in mid-March, 1995)

Not to flog a dead horse, but I had another article (a follow-up Kobe report) printed in the Hokkaido Shinbun on March 14th.

Enclosed are two versions of that article.

The first is the article as I tried to write it in Japanese (but I doubt it came off as smooth). It's not that much different from the Kobe Report I sent you some time ago, just a little more distilled.

The second is how it actually came out in the Japanese newspaper, translated back from Japanese into English, for your comparison. Enjoy.


From the very first day of the disaster, I kept my eyes glued to the screen as the reports of the Kobe quake filtered in. Unfortunately, instead of pity for the victims, I could feel nothing but rising anger. First, I saw the ruined roads and railways, that should have been reinforced and usable, hinder relief efforts. No matter; the government was slow in deploying the Self Defense Forces, and there were more news helicopters than fire-fighting helicopters--an odd set of priorities. Later, as the fires engulfed those trapped in buildings, and shortages of food, water, medicine, and shelter became apparent, I heard that international rescue efforts had been turned away at the Japanese border. I couldn't stand it anymore--people were dying and I was sitting up here safe in Sapporo doing nothing. I called NHK, asked for a phone number for some volunteer organization, and made preparations to head south. That was how my trip to Kobe got started.

I left wife and child behind on Valentines' Day, which was not the best timing, but it was the earliest I could go. The disaster had already happened about a month before, so things in Kobe had settled down a bit. My destination, Chuo-ku, already had established clear networks for food, water, electricity, and transportation. The dead and severely injured had already been moved out of sight, so all that was left was time-consuming, non-dangerous jobs doing community service. No problem, Chuo-ku Volunteers assured me over the phone, there would be plenty of work. Just come down and we'll keep you busy. I loaded my backpack full of goodies, boarded a ferry, and in 36 hours found myself in Kobe dodging the cracks in the pavement.

As they had indicated, there was plenty of work. Requests for help would come in directly day in and day out: "We urgently need four women with experience bathing the elderly. One week's stay required." "Apt. Complex with elderly residents needs water brought up six flights twice a day. 12 able-bodied men required to man bucket relay." "Car to drive old man down to bank to cash pension check urgently required." "Night watchmen for weekday nights please apply." "Volunteers needed to move goods from collapsed house." "Bathhouse managers and cleaners wanted." "Kids need playmates--join our 'Asobi-tai' Group!" "Soup Kitchens need help." "Pamphlets on emergency services distributed in six languages weekly. Editors with language skills needed." All this on our community board, which overwhelmed me from the moment I walked in.

Fortunately, I soon found a job that suited me--public relations. We had between 50 and 100 volunteers coming in daily and the turnover was huge. Since I was going to be there for a week, I was put in charge of the community board, and helped familiarize new faces with the ways of Chuo-ku Volunteers. I showed them the ropes, found them work, and sent them out with maps to do good deeds. "Debito the Doorman" was my nickname, and, asking for volunteers to do odd-jobs day in and day out, I got to meet a lot of interesting people:

"I'm a barber. Is there any way you can use me?" said a dapper middle-aged man. "Hey, I'm here a week, so use me up, willya? Keep me busy!" snorted an impatient high-schooler bored to tears in a dull moment. "I made my husband enough food for three days, so may I help you?" said a housewife, her eyes sparkling. "I'm a specialist in massage and mental revitalization. I'm old, so send me to where there are other old people." whisped an elderly grandpa. "Yahoo, we're the Caped Crusaders from Kansai-Dai, ready to help any and all! So send us out!" belted a team of six college students full of energy. As I gave each and every one of these precious people instructions, I could feel them somewhat taken aback by my foreignness. They soon adjusted, and we all worked together well.

But desk work was not all I did. I accompanied our groups out to the scene at least once a day so I could keep in mind for whom I was working--the victims. At one neighborhood children's center, we were in charge of distributing indispensible goods such as powdered milk, diapers, towels, tissues, toilet paper, feminine hygiene, underwear, socks, blankets, hand warmers, and warm clothes. Victims would come in at 20-minute intervals to receive these goods for free, and we would make sure that people didn't take more than they were allotted. I felt especially important one day when I realized that one of the goods we were distributing--children's milk from India--had instructions in English and Hindi only. I quickly took out my pocket dictionary, translated the English into Japanese, had the instructions photocopied, and taped them to the cannisters. This was a job only I could have done so quickly and effectively, and I was pleased I was on hand to do it.

In addition, I went to places that were completely devastated, like Nagata-ku. I met a number of people huddled around a fire, living under a tarp, in good spirits but with very little left to their names. I spent two nights with them, drinking and making merry, and learned a little Kansai dialect. I think I shall never forget their faces when some told me, tears brimming in their eyes, "For coming from such a faraway place, Sapporo, America, whatever, thank you very, very much!" It was a nice little bit of warmth on such a cold, wintry Kansai night.

I left Kobe after only a week of service, but I must say that my image of Japan has probably forever been changed. I have lived in this country for a total of six years, three of those working in Japanese businesses. My most telling training came when I worked for 15 months for a trading company, as an entry-level salaryman. My training was straightforward: businessmen are only to think about profitability. People around you are no more than a means to you to make money for the company. Treat others like gods if you have financial ties, ignore them if you don't. Do favors to get favors, and remember that charity is no more than a waste of time and money. Everybody else thinks the same, so don't be made a fool of. There is nothing more costly than something you receive for free, says an old Japanese saying. That was my training, and I took it to heart.

Even the Japanese government seemed to echo this sentiment in their actions. They seemed to fear "free help" from overseas, instead saying "You've gotta be kidding!" and "This is a market-cracking ploy." They tried to rely on insufficient help only because it came from within Japan, and people died as a result. Asking others around me if they were not themselves outraged by this stupidity, and if they could , would they do something to help? They simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "Well, volunteering is just something we Japanese don't do." Seeing this, I really thought that this was the norm, that Japanese society was a cold-hearted, small-minded place.

However, thanks to my experiences in Kobe with the Chuo-ku Volunteers, I can self-assuredly say that that is not the case. All those people that came at their own expense to help, to do good just for the sake of doing good. Thousands of them ate cold bentou and onigiri ad nauseam, became sick, and did just a little something to alleviate the misery of Hyogo-Ken. Some flew in from Mozambique and Rwanda to help, others had just finished up with earthquake relief in Hachinohe, Okushiri, and Kushiro. Others, this being their first experience, soon found ways to spend their free time--cleaning up garbage from water stations and refuse disposal corners. I only gave a week, but in that time I've never met such a stunning class of Japanese people. It was my honor to serve with them.

Born of the tragedy that is the Great Kansai Earthquake, I see the volunteer spirit as alive and well in Japan, with hopefully far-reaching socially-conscious ripples within Japanese society.


(Picture Caption: Mr A, in Kobe, distributes clothes at a shelter)




Mr A (30), an American from Sapporo, participated as a volunteer in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Distributing things like diapers, he gave his all (ase o nagashita) helping out the refugees. We would like to present Mr A's memoirs (taikenki) which he wrote down for us:

At the end of February, I headed for Kobe Chuo-ku Yakusho via the Otaru-Tsuruga Ferry. On the volunteer job blackboard there were written various requests for work, such as, "We need men to man the bucket relays", "Please help if you can with our 'Asobitai' child-minding group", "Wanted: translaters for seven languages including English and Spanish".

We had plenty of people coming down to work every day. "I work for a hair stylist's. Is there any demand for a haircutter?" (said a middle-aged man). "I've made three days' worth of food for my husband. I'll help you with anything." (said a housewife). They all had great conviction in what they were doing (kokorozuyoi). I also had a hand in whatever work came around.

First, there were some cans of powdered milk with its usage explanation written in English and Hindi. It had come with relief supplies from a company in India. "This powder is meant for children 6 months and above. Please measure exactly 7 scoops and mix with 220cc." I wrote in translation and fixed it to the can.

We also arranged and passed out goods, such as blankets, underwear, toilet paper, and diapers at refugee centers. In the place hardest hit by the earthquake, Nagata-ku, after work I had a drink with some old folk surrounding a brazier. They expressed their gratitude, saying, "For coming here from such a faraway place, hey, thanks a heap, mate (ooki ni)".

I was only there for a week, but my view of Japanese people has completely changed. I have lived in Japan for six years, but when I was a salaryman, I had thought that Japanese human relations were no more than a means to make money, and that Japanese companies were too busy to have time to do volunteer work. However, everybody in Kobe was a definite trier (ganbariya). Even though they were catching colds, eating cold bento, they wished to be as useful as possible.

Some volunteers had experience working in Rwanda and Mozambique. Others came from earthquake zones Okushiri and Kushiro. It was my honor to have gotten to know Japanese with such volunteer spirit out of a tragic situation in Kobe. I have plans to share this experience with my friends in the United States.


Ah well.

Granted that my article is not news--it's just a human-interest piece. However, given my last article and this one, I'm beginning to wonder how much of the real news actually gets through, not ending up on the cutting-room floor in the interests of saving newspaper space. Or face.

David Aldwinckle

Sapporo, Japan

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