When Tatsuya Yoshioka founded Peace Boat in 1983, he dreamed of a borderless world, where people of all nationalities could share friendship, mutual understanding and respect – a world free of attached stereotypes, conflicts and wars.
Twenty-nine years later, he has good reasons to believe that this is not only a dream: Peace Boat has incorporated more than 73 peace education voyages, travelling to more than 100 ports around the world; has worked in over nine countries in disaster relief operations; and has raised donations for victims of natural and manmade disasters around the globe in a number of projects and initiatives.
The Japan-based international organization is now operating as one of the few networks which have mobilized trained volunteers to work in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the most severely affected cities after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, which struck Japan on March 11 and washed away thousands of lives, cities and memories.
Since March 23, Peace Boat has dispatched over 1,200 volunteers to Ishinomaki, to deliver hot meals, relief goods and help clean the mud and debris from the city. Approximately 120 of those volunteers are foreigners who come from various countries in the world.
Yoshioka was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his Global Article 9 anti-war campaign, a Peace Boat initiative to raise the profile of legal mechanisms for disarmament and non-violence at a national and international level. He humbly says that "a prize should not be a man’s purpose" for his actions, and that he still has a lot to achieve before he truly deserves a prize. He believes that the world can be a better place if people cooperate with each other through friendship and mutual respect.
What motivated you to found Peace Boat?
I was a student at Waseda University where I studied Asian Culture. At the time, I learned a lot of things about my country’s past that I didn’t know before. I started this organization in 1983 to build mutual understanding, study history and form international friendships. I wanted to promote a borderless peace community. “Peace” includes not just no war, but also peaceful life, human activities, no poverty and no fear.
How did Peace Boat become involved in disaster relief operations?
I used to think that Japan was a developed country and I never thought that people could suffer so much in this country. But after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, I was shocked to see that cities could be completely destroyed in a single moment, even in Japan. At the time, I thought that our civilization is very fragile. I saw with my own eyes that natural disasters are beyond people’s imagination. The Kobe earthquake also made me realize that the people who suffer the most during a natural disaster are the people who are weak in society: the elderly, children, ill people, and also foreigners, because of the language barrier. I began to understand that it is essential to support the victims of natural disasters.
It is also quite ironic, but before 1995, I had visited many conflict zones around the world and I was quite aware of the tragedy that erupts in a war, but I was not aware that a similar suffering and destruction could happen in Japan. I used to think that all this misfortune was far from my country. After the 1995 earthquake, we created a slogan "Kobe kara sekai ga mieru" (We can see the world through Kobe). We wanted to send the message that disasters can happen anywhere in the world and through them, people can understand the suffering in countries far away from their own. I feel that in their essence, war conflicts and natural disasters are the same: the people who suffer the most are the weakest ones. That is why we motivated ourselves to begin disaster relief operations in addition to our activities.
How is the March 11 disaster different from what you have experienced before as part of Peace Boat’s disaster relief operations?
The scale of the disaster is completely different. The current disaster in Japan outreaches the scale of any other earthquake and tsunami disaster I have previously seen. Unfortunately, the speed of recovery after the March 11 disaster is very slow. The majority of citizens in the Tohoku areas are elderly people and without young people’s power, it is difficult to mobilize a quick recovery. In addition, local governments were destroyed in the earthquake, so they cannot function. In the first days after the earthquake, road destruction also reduced immediate access to the devastated areas. Another thing that hinders quick reconstruction is the fact that Japan still lacks an organized volunteer network. We don’t have a volunteer culture and that is a major problem. We need professional coordination skills to organize and dispatch volunteers as soon as they are needed. Japan had a very strong community before World War II, but after the war it has weakened, people have become more individual-centered – especially in large cities.
Did you take a different approach in your disaster relief operations this time?
Yes, much different. At the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, disaster relief was completely new to us. The most important thing we learned from our experience in Kobe was that when a disaster of this scale happens, we should organize volunteer activities outside of the destructed areas. Before volunteers begin their work, they should be well informed, trained and have to be fully prepared of what is expected from them. They have to know the risks, what to bring with them and they have to be organized in teams. If they go to the devastated areas before knowing this, they will not be able to help fully; sometimes it may even be counter-productive. That was a very important lesson we learned from our experience in Kobe and that is why we are able to help now – in a highly organized manner.
What are Peace Boat volunteers mainly doing in Ishinomaki?
At the very beginning there were no major NGOs working in Ishinomaki and we thought it necessary to reach there as soon as possible. We sent two advance teams on March 16 to collect information about the damage and needs. After we collected the information, we decided on working in three main fields: cooking and delivering hot meals, distributing relief goods to shelters, and cleaning up the mud and debris from the city. The mud cleaning is extremely difficult because it’s endless, but it is currently one of the most necessary things to do.
How different is the situation in Ishinomaki from what we see on TV? Are we seeing the reality?
Unfortunately, no. It is very difficult to imagine the scale of the disaster while watching the news from home, sitting in a warm room and eating three meals a day. The smell is also something we cannot feel from TV. It is everywhere. There is a need to visit those areas in order to fully understand the scale of the disaster.
What do evacuees need most at the moment?
It is very difficult to say, because needs change daily. If people want to send relief goods to the affected areas, it is essential that they have up-to-date information about the current needs in evacuation shelters. We constantly update such information on our website.
If someone wants to volunteer with Peace Boat, what do they have to do?
Give us a call or send us an e-mail first. We hold orientations for all volunteers during which we instruct them about the work, the risks and the things they have to bring for a week. They have to be ready to sustain themselves for a week: have a tent, sleeping bag, food, gloves, and long boots for those who will be cleaning the mud. We also welcome; in fact, we strongly wish to have as many international volunteers as possible, because we believe it is essential for Japanese people to see with their own eyes the importance of international cooperation. International volunteers are not required to speak Japanese, because we have secured a volunteer interpreter for every international team.
Why are you advising volunteers not to stay in Ishinomaki more than a week?
In a natural disaster, human beings become highly tensed. There is an enormous stress that, quite often, people may not be aware of, because they are working almost in an auto-mode. When volunteers go in the devastated areas, the tragedy is in their face. But at the same time, they are there to help and they understand this, so they try to stay calm and listen to everyone. It is difficult to handle this for a long time. Especially young people, they get very involved and work very hard, sometimes more than their abilities. For many of them, it is their first experience to be needed in the society – everybody thanks them, everybody relies on them – and they feel they must work extremely hard. Very quickly they become burnt-out without noticing. That is why we want them to come back after a week, recharge, and if they want, they can go back again.
What are the main problems Peace Boat is currently facing?
The biggest problem at the moment is manpower cost. Many people want to donate money directly to the victims of the earthquake, which is very understandable, but it becomes a problem for organizations like us, because it makes it difficult to raise enough funds. We need funds for the meals we deliver and for transportation to Ishinomaki. Another problem is the accommodation of volunteers. At the moment we have our volunteers sleep in tents, but tents take a lot of space. We want to organize a facility with two floor beds for the volunteers. We have consulted many furniture companies to help us with this initiative, but unfortunately, they refused because they think it is more important to donate beds for the victims, not for volunteers. Many organizations and companies lack understanding about the importance of volunteer work.
What is your advice for people who want to help?
There is a need for short-term, midterm and long-term assistance. In the short term, people should support NGOs and NPOs who can send volunteers to the affected areas to assist immediate needs. In the midterm, they should encourage and support the rebuilding of local businesses. In the long term, they should start sharing ideas about how we can rebuild Tohoku and talk about human security issues in general. We should learn from past mistakes. There was a great earthquake 85 years ago and at the time people built a stone and wrote not to build houses below it, because tsunami had reached there. There were people who didn’t build houses below that stone, but there were some who went ahead and ignored the warning. All houses that were built below the stone level were washed away in the tsunami after the March 11 earthquake. This is very symbolical – we should learn from old wisdom and past experiences.
How will this disaster change the perception of internationalization in Japan?
Japan’s experience in international cooperation until now was mostly through Official Development Assistance (ODA), through which we have helped other countries. But now we need support from the international society – now we are the ones who need to receive help. This is a great opportunity for Japanese people to understand that international cooperation is mutual and we have to respect the help we receive from abroad. It is an opportunity for countries to even overcome historical and political conflicts. March 11 was a horrible disaster, but it is an opportunity to open up the Japanese society to the world and to promote international cooperation. Through these activities, international friendship will grow and become the power to prevent future conflicts between countries. That is why at Peace Boat, we want to demonstrate that people from all over the world care about Japan and are willing to support us.
When will we see the end of this crisis?
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to say. We still lack a clear idea of how to rebuild the cities. We even don’t know whether the cities will be rebuilt or abandoned. It also related to the government’s plan for reconstruction of the affected areas, which is not clear yet. Perhaps, in half a year, we will be able to see the direction of reconstruction, but when a full recovery will take place…that is something we don’t know yet, unfortunately. The mud cleaning in Ishinomaki, for example, will take at least one year.
Peace Boat also accepts fundraising, relief goods sorting and administrative volunteers in Tokyo. For more information on Peace Boat volunteer work, visit http://www.peaceboat.org/english/index.php or contact Peace Boat Office Tokyo at Tel: 81(0)3-3363-8047 / Fax: 81(0)3-3363-7562 or email: email@example.com© Japan Today