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The earthquake generation.

The young Peace Boat volunteers who felt the immediate need to help their fellow Japanese offer an unexpected view of the country's social reality--and its future.

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Maiko Sugano, age 27, Googled volunteer opportunities and contacted several organizations. Peace Boat was the only one to write back. "They seem to take everyone. No experience necessary," says Sugano. She's unemployed right now, which, in contemporary Japan, carries a certain degree of shame. She's clearly bright. Her English is flawless. Her 10-year goal is a simple one: She wants to feel more capable. She was worried about the radiation from Fukushima, but not enough to let it stop her. She wants nothing but to hold on to this experience, to absorb it into her. "What happened here will be forgotten so easily. People will stop donating. Next month, who knows, something else might happen. If I see it with my eyes, I will take it seriously at least. I will remember it."

Sugano and many of the young and underemployed volunteers might be referred to as a 'lost generation." Originally an expression that referred to men and women who came of age during World War I in the United States, the term first came into usage in Japan after the bursting of the real-estate bubble in the 1990s, and the moniker "lost generation" has latched itself to various successive graduating classes ever since.

For 20 years now, the story has been the same: The biggest and most stable companies--the ones still offering a clear path to reliable middle-class income--only recruit fresh out of university and only pick the top students. The young people who aren't snapped up, who willingly diverge from the white-collar career course or don't seem to match the corporate ideal because they are socially awkward, different, or just of the wrong gender, often spend decades bouncing from start-up to startup, from one small company job to the next.

"Those hired as contract workers usually have no hope of full employee status in the Japanese corporate world," says Michael Dziesinski, a sociology fellow at the University of Tokyo. "The employment issue for Japanese youth is a broken postwar school-to-work system for young adults, and as a result, some less-resilient youth fall through the cracks," says Dziesinski. The result: Nonstandard employment--referring to part-time, freelance, or just dead-end work--has doubled since the 1980s and today comprises one-third of the Japanese labor force.

After World War II, Japan forged a reputation for social cohesiveness, egalitarianism, and strong middle-class job growth. As Japan's ties to the United States grew stronger through the 1990s, the Japanese economy has come more and more to resemble that of the United States in its most unenviable aspects. Japan's income inequality is higher than that of many other wealthy countries, such as Norway, Sweden, and even India. The 2008 recession only exacerbated this trend, as many thousands of temporary and contract workers lost employment, bringing the poverty rate up to 15%. A few years ago, this disparity inspired the coinage of the term kakusa sakai, which might be interpreted to mean "disparate society," or "society without evenness." Another new expression to describe economic stratification is kachigumi soshite makegumi: society of winners and losers.

"The attainable Japanese dream began to disappear 30 years ago, in the eighties. We don't know where the next Japanese dream lies," says Tokyo University demographics expert Yuji Genda.

Peace Boat volunteer Issey Tamaku, age 20, is a politics student at Keio University. He lost his aunt and uncle to the tsunami. When he learned that his school had canceled classes because of the earthquake, he, too, Googled volunteer opportunities and found Peace Boat. He went to high school in South Korea and credits this for his perfect English. He says that, compared to Korea, Japan "doesn't get out enough. We're too content to stay here. We need better English instruction. These kids are learning English but they can't speak it." Still, he's optimistic about the future of Japan. "I have to be," he says.

Kenji Yasuda, a student from Yokahama, age 22, is wonderfully frank about his motivation. He was captivated by the scenes on his television and now he wants to know how existence here compares to his comfortable life back home. He says he needed to contribute something and so he will be shoveling mud for the week. "People in Tokyo are getting back to ordinary life," he says. "Already, pachinko parlors are full. They're losing memory."

Koike Shinya, age 20, works as a house painter. He doesn't know what he wants to do in life except, one day, go to Boston. He's volunteering now because he wanted to play a role in the most significant event to take place in Japan in the last 50 years. "We are a country of very nice people, but some of that is only on the surface. When a crisis like this happens, you can see people for what they really are," he says.

Another 20-year-old, Takumi Thomas, is a university student in politics and media, with aspirations toward being an announcer. He was motivated by a mixture of curiosity and its separate, murkier, altruistic cousin, "a desire to help." Like almost every volunteer here, he began searching online for volunteer opportunities immediately after the disaster. Peace Boat was the first to write back and accept the offer.

Tsubabasa Shinoda, age 20, is from Kanagawa Yokohama. He's a law student and works an unpaid internship in an advertising agency. Like many of the volunteers in the tent city, he says he got on the bus because he was "afraid of being indifferent." It seems he's struggling to do the right thing, groping for the proper response to an event far larger than anything he's experienced in his lifetime, an event to which he feels intimately bound.

Besides Peace Boat, there are several other nongovernmental organizations operating in the area. A group called AP Bank sent up 100 volunteers for the weekend. The Red Cross was running a hospital. But Peace Boat appeared to be winning the contest to send as many volunteers as possible, which enabled them to cover the gaps left open by other, well-funded relief groups. Herein lies the first lesson of the tsunami: Expect a flood of volunteers and respond rapidly to marshal their energy.

The natural human response to a terrible news event like the Tohoku tragedy is complex. Groups like the Red Cross work to convert that reaction into a financial contribution as quickly as possible through televised appeals and banner ads.

Peace Boat put out a solicitation within weeks of the disaster, when the interest level was still high. It campaigned through its own network, through Facebook, mixi, and even the Tokyo blogger community. The message went viral because it connected with what the broader public actually wanted to do in response to the scene playing out on their televisions: shovel, repair, comfort, change the situation in a visible and tangible way--in a word, act. Clicking a banner ad does not have the same effect and never will.

On April 9, no other private organization in the affected area was taking as big a risk, either financially or in terms of safety, as was Peace Boat. Even the Japanese army began the relief process by carefully assessing the situation and writing a manual before distributing food and supplies. Peace Boat did the reverse: It started sending volunteers and then writing their safety manual based on the feedback they received.

Peace Boat was also spending far more than it was taking in. In normal years, it's an educational tour outfit, ferrying kids around the world for high-priced educational excursions on chartered boats (Peace Boats). After the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the organization raised money and collected supplies, but it has never attempted an operation of this size or scope. Financially; the organization may not survive this, its grandest moment.

This character of impulsive selflessness reflects the attitudes of the young volunteers who have signed up for this excursion. I found it repeated in the survivors.
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Title Annotation:volunteers for Peace Boat
Author:Tucker, Patrick
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1372
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