When Masaru Tanaka joined a rush of volunteers during holidays in May, he planned to stay in the tsunami disaster zone for only a week.
Three months later, long after many volunteers have gone home, Mr. Tanaka is still helping feed survivors in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi province.
More than five months after the March 11 tsunami, thousands of disaster victims still need someone to help them eat, find medicine or dig out their homes and shops.
Taking an extended leave of absence from his job at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo, Mr. Tanaka, 35, is at the forefront of a new generation of Japanese who are discovering the challenges – and joys – of volunteering. “Life is more important than money,” Mr. Tanaka said. “I just feel like I have to help out people here as much as I can.”
A specialist in Internet technology who grew up in Tokyo, Mr. Tanaka is volunteering with the Peace Boat nongovernmental organization at a “central kitchen” in an abandoned pub in the entertainment district of this city of 160,000.
On a sweltering summer night, he and many others, who wear blue jerseys identifying them as Peace Boat volunteers, cook up massive pots of soup and other hot meals for survivors living in shelters or in the remains of damaged homes in dark streets riddled with flies and odors left over by the tsunami.
While the number of volunteers has declined across the tsunami zone,Peace Boat is continuing to take in about 300 fresh volunteers a week, who get two free meals per day, showers and places to sleep in tents or on the upper floors of shops. Mr. Tanaka said many of the new volunteers end up staying long-term like him for the camaraderie of new friends and the positive feeling attained by helping people in need.
In the Ishinomaki area, Peace Boat volunteers are helping dig mud out of homes and shops. They clean mold and bugs off beds and mats. They also are helping fishermen restore their work environments. While the physical labor of carrying supplies and digging out homes and shops was vital at the beginning of the relief effort, the focus has shifted to providing spiritual support to victims who still lack proper homes, jobs and diet.
“The biggest thing for me is not about what kind of activity you do, whether it’s cleaning homes or distributing food,” Mr. Tanaka said. “The important thing is that we are showing local people that we are here from all over the world, and all over Japan. Some victims have mental problems because of the disasters, so it’s important to support them mentally and give them a more positive feeling.”
In the first six weeks after the March 11 disasters, about 190,000 volunteers came to the tsunami-hit provinces of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
Many volunteers such as Mr. Tanaka have had to overcome fears of ingesting radioactive air, water or food from the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima province, and the nuclear disaster has perhaps scared away thousands of potential volunteers. Those who remain are at least helping build momentum during the recovery process, which experts say could take 10 years. Mr. Tanaka and the Peace Boat volunteers recently have been organizing barbecue parties at shelters.
“When we cook together over the barbecues we set up, it helps to break down the hierarchy between volunteers and victims,” Mr. Tanaka said. “We want people to become motivated to help themselves, to learn to stand up on their own.”