The Helping Hands for Japan Volunteer programme

(Supported by Into Japan Specialist Tours and It’s Not Just Mud)

Programme summary
This programme is designed for volunteers who want to travel to Tohoku and help the people there rebuild their lives after the earthquake and disaster on 11th March 2011. It is open to anyone from anywhere and particularly designed to help non-Japanese from overseas or within Japan. We would normally expect volunteers on this programme to spend at least 5 days doing voluntary work but it is not necessary. We can give you general advice about the volunteer work and travel in Japan before you leave. The volunteer work in Tohoku (Ishinomaki) is arranged by Its Not Just Mud and they provide basic accommodation and food.

The need for volunteers
There is a huge need for volunteers over a vast area of Japan. 700km of coastline was hit by the tsunami, and some inland areas have also been badly hit by the earthquake. After the initial emergency response, volunteer numbers were good but now they are declining. Due to the scale of this disaster, volunteers will be needed for many years. Some estimates say it will take 3 years to clear all the debris, and 20 years to fully rebuild the communities and livelihoods of those most affected.

What skills are needed?
Anyone who is healthy is potentially a good volunteer. Much of the work, as of June 2011, was of a manual nature, such as moving mud or clearing houses for renovation. As the process moves forward many other skills will also be helpful. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have volunteering experience. It is very difficult situation for everyone in Tohoku and the presence of volunteers alone is important to encourage the local people to get involved themselves in rebuilding their lives. Non-Japanese volunteers also help to inspire the Japanese volunteers.

What are the conditions like for volunteers?
Those who have volunteered in a different country before or who have travelled to developing countries may find it easier to cope. The accommodation is basic and the food is simple. You should come with an open mind, willing to be flexible according to the needs and people you are working with. You will also be expected to work hard on volunteering days and be prepared to deal with unpleasant sights and smells at times. In return, you can expect to meet amazing people amongst the other volunteers, local residents and refugees. Everyone will be very supportive of what you are doing. Many volunteers find this so gratifying that they change their plans staying longer than planned.

How will we help willing volunteers?
Our service includes the following;
To offer advice about volunteering and help with planning your trip (free). We will discuss the possibilities and costs and help you decide if you are a suitable person.
Assistance and support on arrival in Tohoku. Helping Hands for Japan is working with It’s Not Just Mud which is based in Ishinomaki. Ishinomaki was the worst hit town in the disaster. About one quarter of all the dead and missing were in this town so it is central to a lot of the volunteer activities. It’s Not Just Mud now operate two houses for accommodation so this a good place for volunteers from overseas to be based. They meet volunteers on arrival in Ishinomaki and coordinate their volunteer work, often collaborating with other volunteer and local groups. This is normally planned in advance according to the skills of the volunteers.
Booking service for additional travel plans. This is done on a non-profit basis for those who do at least 5 days voluntary work. This is done in liaison with Into Japan Specialist Tours and non-profit means that staff expenses are covered but no additional amounts are charged.

The costs for the volunteer programme
We are keen for as many keen volunteers as possible to travel to Tohoku and we do not make any charge for these services. However there is of course a real cost to run the volunteer programme and currently it continues based on the support of Into Japan Specialist Tours. We hope this programme will continue to be sustainable for the months and years to come. We are extremely grateful when volunteers are able to coordinate some independent fundraising or when those unable to volunteer themselves can fundraise or make contributions towards the programme. Volunteers who fundraise for their volunteer trip can do so through us, which would make gift-aid donations possible. In this case up to 50% of any amount raised can be used towards flight and other necessary costs during your volunteer stay.

Other costs
Costs can be very low in Japan, depending on where you stay and which programme you join. Most volunteers are camping and about 2,000 yen / day is enough for other essential costs such as food. Some volunteer programmes will provide free coach travel and / or simple accommodation (which may be a tent) and others may provide food, but most of these programmes require orientations in Tokyo up to one week beforehand and may not be suitable for volunteers from overseas or outside Tokyo. The return transport to the area is about 20,000 yen if you take the bullet train to Sendai but other options are cheaper.

Travel / Volunteer Insurance
All volunteers are provided with medical insurance for the work they do and this lasts for claims up to one year after the work. However please understand that this medical care will be provided within Japan so repatriation or medical care in a different country would need to be covered in a travel insurance policy.

General Safety
We have seen no particular reasons for concern provided volunteers are sensible and listen properly to team leaders (they will communicate in English also when necessary). Small earthquakes are common and longer term volunteers are used to this. As for everything else you should follow the local advice. There is a risk in everything we do and we do not believe the risks here are higher than travelling to many other parts of the world.

It is important to understand that we are providing support and advice only. This is not a travel product and you will essentially be travelling as an independent traveller during your stay. We can only advise you based on our own knowledge and experience. Personal experiences will vary hugely and we encourage everyone to also do their own research beforehand so they can be as well prepared as possible beforehand. It is hoped that this advice and support service will enable many more people to work as volunteers at a time when it is really needed.