Japan's youth get going

Japan's youth get going

University students join forces to help earthquake victims rebuild their lives


Kei Takahashi (front left) with other staff at Youth for 3.11.
Kei Takahashi (front left) with other staff at Youth for 3.11.
Photo: Youth for 3.11
The devastating earthquake in March last year destroyed thousands of houses and families but not the spirit of Japanese youth. Since the disaster, thousands of young people have stepped out of their comfort zone and turned desperation into hope by rebuilding their country together.

Youth for 3.11 is a student-run organisation, which was set up a week after the earthquake. It offers university students in Japan a chance to participate as volunteers and help in relief work in the affected areas.

"I went to Ishinomaki in September. It was actually different from what I expected," said Kei Takahashi, a 22-year-old student at Waseda University in Tokyo. "I thought that volunteering was an act of serving, something serious that you had to work hard on. I didn't expect it to be fun and enjoyable!"

Takahashi has been volunteering as the chief operating officer for Youth for 3.11 since its launch. "It feels good to work for the good of my country," she said.

To date, Youth for 3.11 has 7,200 registered volunteers and has sent 1,700 of them to six affected areas: Ishinomaki, Rikuzentakada, Minamisanriku-cho, Aizuwakamatsu, Kesennuma and Koriyama.

"We clean up debris and rebuild homes, and organise community building projects in temporary houses. We also host tea parties, and make and sell arts and crafts. Together we create products such as benches. They help the victims earn a little income," Takahashi said.

Takahashi and other students also bond with the victims.

Living in a culture that encourages them to appear strong in front of others, some victims are reluctant to talk with their peers, even though they shared the same traumatic experiences. But the students are outsiders, so it is easier for the victims to open up to them.

Their visits comforted the victims more than words can say.

"People in Tohoku [prefecture] are afraid that others will forget about the disaster and what they're going through. They don't want to be forgotten as there is still so much to be done in the region," Takahashi said.

Youth for 3.11 also helps businesses in the affected region. Some volunteers help clean up factories; some help fishermen set up nets; and some clear the debris in the rice fields flooded by the tsunami so farmers can plough their fields once again.

"The actions we take may be small and we can't turn any person's life around in a short time. But there is always something I can do right now for others," Takahashi said.

The disaster in Tohoku caused Japan's young people to think a lot more about their values. Many who took their family and friends for granted have now become more appreciative of them.

"People are spending more time with family and friends since the earthquake. They've seen how everything was taken from the victims' lives in just seconds. When you see something like that, you realise how important human relationships are and how essential it is to sustain them," Takahashi said.

The volunteering experience has also changed the lives of the university students. Students who are looking for jobs are taking a different view to before.

"They no longer base their career choices on money," Takahashi said. "Now they consider whether the job is meaningful. They will also spend more time on their personal lives."

Sarah is a third-year journalism student at the University of Hong Kong. With six other students, she went to Japan last month to report on the first anniversary of the March 11 triple disaster



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