Japan beyond 3.11 Stories of Recovery

The Neighboring Town that Welcomed 100,000 Volunteers

This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on July 7, 2014

Tomorrow Logo

Right after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, volunteers flocked to the devastated areas.

But many of the stricken coastal areas had suffered such considerable damage that they could not make preparations for receiving volunteers.

Tono City officials

In that situation, the citizens of Tono City in Iwate Prefecture welcomed everyone who offered to help.

Magokoro Net staff

“We’ve had more than double the usual number of applications.”
(Man: Tono Magokoro Net staff)

Magokoro Net staff

“We’ve already had more than 100 applications today.”
(Woman: Tono Magokoro Net staff)

Kazuhiko Tada

“We refused to stop, and continued accepting everyone.”
(Kazuhiko Tada: President, Tono Magokoro Net)


Tono, which welcomed the thousands of volunteers who played such a big role in the recovery efforts, had an original system that could make the best use of the volunteers’ abilities through a collaboration of the private sector and the local government.

Episode prologue

In this edition, we consider future post-disaster volunteerism based on the behind-the-lines logistic support carried out by Tono City.

The Neighboring Town that Welcomed 100,000 Volunteers
Roland Kelts

American journalist Roland Kelts visits Iwate to report on disaster-relief volunteering.

Roland Kelts

It is two years since Roland last visited the stricken coastal areas.


“It’s the power of water... This is shocking. And I’ve been following this story for years, I’ve been writing about it, I’ve visited various areas. But standing here now, it’s, it’s really, it’s really shocking.”
(Roland Kelts: American journalist)

Otsuchi, Iwate

Three and half years after the disaster, the debris has all been cleared away. It is now very quiet, with no sign of any people.


The tsunami wrecked the coastal areas. Large numbers of volunteers immediately headed to the region wanting to help in whatever way they could.

Otsuchi Town Hall

However, the administrative organizations in the devastated areas that needed volunteer support had also suffered considerable damage. As a result, many local governments had no choice but to stop accepting volunteers.

On the way to Tono

But one city located 50 kilometers inland started welcoming the volunteers who could find nowhere else to go.

Tono, Iwate

The city of Tono is in the central area of Iwate at the foot of mountains up to 2,000 meters high.

Thanks to the firm ground below the city, it suffered little damage in the earthquake and escaped the tsunami, so the city’s utilities were fully restored just three days after the disaster.

Location of Tono

Tono is in the southeast part of the prefecture roughly halfway between the coastal and lower inland areas. This means it has good access from other prefectures. From Tono, it is about a one-hour drive to the damaged coastal areas, including the ports of Rikuzentakata and Kamaishi. Thanks to its excellent location, it was the perfect base for providing volunteer support.

Roland visits Magokoro Net

Roland first visits an NPO called Tono Magokoro Net, which was a leader in receiving volunteers at that time.

Introducing himself

“Hello, I’m Roland.”

Kazuhiko Tada decided to set up the organization when he observed the situation immediately after the disaster.

Roland and Tada

“Tada-san, what was the first thing you saw that made you decide to start a volunteer center?”

Kazuhiko Tada: President, Tono Magokoro Net

Kazuhiko Tada

“Around that time, there was only one passable road in the area. If volunteers came in one after another without knowing that, the road would naturally have got jammed very quickly. There were also still many corpses, valuables and danger zones. Volunteers might have gone to areas they shouldn’t have entered. I didn’t want that to happen. So, the safest thing was for them to come to Tono first and then we’d take them to and from the coastal areas. In that way we could accept more volunteers and also bring together all their power. Thinking of all those things, I decided to do it that way.”
(Kazuhiko Tada: President, Tono Magokoro Net)

Tada at work

Kazuhiko, who runs a travel agency in Tono, started receiving volunteers in the city and sending them out to the stricken areas in cooperation with his friends.

Criteria for joining

They established a basic policy before launching the volunteer activities. It was to welcome anyone, regardless of age, nationality or experience.

“When I saw the situation and was wondering what we could do, I realized we were facing a tragedy of such a major scale that individuals could achieve very little. Our only hope was to encourage as many people as possible to come and help us.”
(Kazuhiko Tada)


They created a homepage in order to gather as many volunteers as possible, and began inviting applications.


This is how the office looked one month after they started receiving volunteers.

The staff members were busily responding to volunteers who had accessed their homepage and applied to join them.

Staff on the telephone

“Hello, Tono Magokoro Net. We’d like you to come around 7:30.”
(Staff: Tono Magokoro Net)


“Hello, Tono Magokoro Net. Oh, thank you. Please come over. We’re looking forward to seeing you.”
(Staff: Tono Magokoro Net)


“Many people ask us at the last minute because somewhere else has refused them. That call was from a group ready to depart tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They had just received a refusal call. We’re basically accepting people like that.”


As a base for behind-the-lines logistic support, Tono started receiving volunteers. Far more people than expected began to gather from all over the country.


Besides local citizens, the Tono Magokoro Net involved NPOs outside the prefecture that had operated after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the Tono Social Welfare Council, which had already started receiving volunteers.

Tono General Welfare Center

This is the General Welfare Center where the Tono Social Welfare Council operates. It served as the first window for receiving volunteers.

Ryuichi Sasaki

As an official of the Tono Social Welfare Council, Ryuichi Sasaki was the go-between linking the local government and the private sector.

Roland and Ryuichi

“We laid out tables here and the staff members did the reception work. Volunteers gave their name and address, and got volunteer insurance before they started any activities. The insurance was a must.”
(Ryuichi Sasaki: Tono Social Welfare Council)


Various procedures were required for the smooth acceptance of volunteers, including the acquisition of insurance.

Ryuichi Sasaki

“This is where the volunteers from all over Japan would gather every morning. Before they headed off to the stricken areas to work, there was a meeting here.”
(Ryuichi Sasaki)


Around one month after they started receiving volunteers, as many as 500 volunteers would gather here every day.

Roland and Ryuichi

“What is the age range of those volunteers in the photograph?”

“From elementary school pupils... (Kelts: Really?)... to an 87-year-old!”
(Ryuichi Sasaki)

“Oh my gosh! Wow!”


Many of the volunteers were participating individually. They did not belong to any organization, so they could not easily find accommodation or transportation to and from the stricken areas.

Securing an infrastructure that includes details like that is very important for receiving volunteers.

Accomodation for volunteers

“This is the gymnasium.”

“This was where the volunteers slept every night. It was designed for various recreation and sports activities, but for one year following the disaster it served as a dormitory for volunteers.”
(Ryuichi Sasaki)


Up to 200 volunteers at a time stayed in the gymnasium at the Center.

Community Halls also used

When the gymnasium was full, community centers and assembly halls were also made available.


Arrangements were made around the city for accommodating up to 2,000 volunteers each day.

Buses transported the volunteers

In addition, private bus companies provided buses on regular routes for a reasonable price one after another to satisfy a request from the city. More than 20 buses carried volunteers to and from the coastal areas every day.

Magokoro Net

There is an important reason why the city could provide such an excellent behind-the-lines logistic support system.

Old map

Tono has a unique history of more than 100 years of providing relief support.

Old Map

In June, 1896, the Sanriku Earthquake hit the coast of the Tohoku region.

Sanriku Earthquake aftermath

The massive tsunami that followed claimed more than 20,000 lives in the coastal communities, including Kamaishi and Ofunato.

Tono City Museum

The City Museum has a record of the support provided by Tono in the wake of that tsunami.

Hiroshi Hasegawa

“Tono has traditionally had strong connections with the coastal areas. Whenever they have suffered damage, Tono has provided financial, practical and moral support.”
(Hiroshi Hasegawa: Curator, Tono Municipal Museum)

Old Tono

In 1896, a disaster relief headquarters was set up in Tono and the residents provided accommodation for people who came to offer help.

Old Map

It’s recorded that all kinds of daily necessities, including rice and clothes for 6,000 people, were carried on the backs of people or horses from Tono to the stricken coastal areas.

2007 meeting with neighboring municipalities

2007 Meeting with neighboring municipalities

That tradition of support has been handed down for the more than 100 years since then. In 2007, four years before the 3.11 disaster, Tono improved its disaster support system in association with nine neighboring municipalities, including Kamaishi, Otsuchi and Rikuzentakata.

Emergency drills

As the base for supporting potentially stricken coastal areas, Tono repeated emergency drills, including the reception of Self-Defense Forces teams and the operation of the overall disaster relief system.


It was those efforts that resulted in the effective logistic support following the Great East Japan Earthquake.


The number of volunteers increased rapidly in Golden Week at the start of May, reaching as many as 11,000. In order to utilize the flood of manpower in the right places, priority was given to building a sense of autonomy.

Groups and Categories

What they did first was to create groups and broadly classify their activities into two categories. The “hard” activities included heavy work such as the removal of debris. The “soft” activities included cooking and the delivery of relief goods to evacuation sites.

Roland and volunteers

“Oh, there are so many!”

The idea was to make the best use of all the volunteers’ abilities.

Volunteer registrations

“We have a mountain of records.”
(Kazuhiko Tada)

These are the registration forms filled in by volunteers as soon as they arrived.


Besides their names, they had to fill in details of special qualifications and skills, such as “Hazardous materials engineer”, “Possess driving license for 2-ton trucks”...

Skills categories

“Foreign language interpreter”, “Counselor”, and “Chain saw operator”.

System for work allocation

They created a system that allowed the volunteers themselves to choose the destination of their activities each day by declaring their particular skills.

The system in use

Those who could drive a 2-ton truck or operate a chain saw joined a team for clearing debris.

Communication team

Those who were qualified as a counselor joined a team that provided care through communication.

Kazuhiko Tada

“People tend to go for activities they’re good at or know they capable of doing. That’s a basic point. Also important is a sense of autonomy. To produce results, there must be a feeling of willingness. So we believed it was best for people to make their own requests, and we encouraged them to do that.”
(Kazuhiko Tada)

Work allocation

To help meet the needs of the stricken areas, the action groups were further subdivided. The debris group was divided into a house-clearing team and a cleaning team, the care group into a tea team and a footbath team.


The house-clearing team cleared up partly damaged houses and removed mud from them. Kazuhiko emphasized one point regarding this activity.

Kazuhiko Tada

“We decided we should ask family members to join us when we were clearing up their house and removing debris. We wanted them to decide on which of their belongings were important. Also, although they’d been thinking ‘It’s all over!’ up till then, as their house got cleared up they gradually felt more encouraged and started to think, ‘Hmm, it’s getting cleaner and tidier, so maybe we can start over again!’.”
(Kazuhiko Tada)


Even three months after the disaster, as the summer holidays approached, more and more novice volunteers were arriving. In order to organize the inexperienced volunteers, a system of appointing leaders was introduced. In the early days, they were chosen from volunteers who had experience from past disasters.

Limited availability

But their availability was naturally limited. So in the Magokoro Net, those due to leave soon scouted volunteers who were scheduled to stay for a while, and they handed down their knowhow.


This group of volunteers was heading to Rikuzentakata.

Due to wash away rotten fish

The aim of their day’s work was to remove the rotten fish washed away from the marine product processing plants.

Group leader

There were 77 volunteers in the group and two leaders. The important task for the leaders was to give instructions on all matters that the volunteers should be aware of. This was essential because many of them had no previous experience.


“First, I’ll tell you a few things you should be careful about. Some places are very muddy and there are lots of nails in the debris, so try not to step directly on any boards.”

Advice from the Leader

“If you find any wallets, cash or bankbooks, please don’t regard them as trash.”
(Junji Miyoshi)

Volunteers at work

The leaders were responsible for helping the volunteers to realize what they were there for and the responsibilities they must assume themselves, because many of them were only there for one day.

During the clean-up

Efforts like these resulted in activities that showed great consideration for the feelings of the people in the stricken areas.

A wedding photo

“Here’s a wedding photo.”

Setting up conflict rules

The Tono Magokoro Net also decided to set up a caretaker role to help manage each venue and deal with all the daily matters in the volunteers’ communal life. But as the volunteers’ communal life lengthened, certain conflicts began to arise between the volunteers.

Junji Miyoshi

(Junji Miyoshi)

Junji Miyoshi came as a volunteer from Osaka and worked continuously for a year after the disaster. He was one of the first generation caretakers.

“There was a tacit understanding that everyone would go to bed around 10 p.m. And the Tono Social Welfare Council notification said that the lights should go out around that time, but the rule wasn’t being kept. Some people were drinking till midnight! (Director: Volunteers?) Yes, the volunteers! Having your sleep disturbed is a real problem. I was 68 then. I felt we should do something about that.”
(Junji Miyoshi)

Volunteers deciding rules

Junji suggested holding a volunteers meeting. Through the exchange of opinions, they started drawing up rules for the sake of a harmonious communal life.

Rules for volunteers

The rule they made as a first priority was related to the lights out and wakeup times so that everyone could get enough rest.

Volunteer facilities

Later, the volunteers made other rules one after another related to their daily life, including proper garbage classification and the use of washing machines.

Sign regarding communal use of washing machines

Even today, the 10th generation caretaker is supporting the communal life of volunteers.

Leaders meeting

In addition, the leaders of each group held a meeting every day. A regular topic was how best to associate with the victims in the stricken areas.


These reports included victims’ comments collected by the volunteers as well as the opinions of the volunteers themselves. They provided topics for discussion.

Volunteer failures

Stories of volunteer failures came up for discussion, such as “While removing debris, I sat down on the foundations of the washed-away house and the owner got really upset”.

Kazuhiko Tada

“If a family has suffered a terrible tragedy and some stranger comes and walks around on top of the foundations of their lost home, of course they will be upset. We came to a mutual agreement that we would never behave like that.”
(Kazuhiko Tada)

Guidelines for volunteers

At the regular meetings, rules for the volunteer activities were gradually fixed: Treat houses reduced to their foundations with respect; Taking photos is prohibited, even during travelling; Refrain from laughter while working; Listen positively to victims’ stories.

Complaints from people

The reports also included comments from victims such as “It is stressful to be asked the same questions repeatedly by volunteers” and “Rather than things, what I want is peace of mind”.


The provision of footbaths proved to be one good way to help reduce victims’ stress.


Taking a footbath not only improves the blood circulation, but it is also effective in enhancing the body’s immune functions.

Community footbath

Besides that, the effect of the footbaths included the creation of an environment in which victims could communicate free from stress.

Keita Inoue: Footbath team leader

Keita Inoue: Footbath team leader

Keita Inoue was the leader of the footbath team. He found he could grasp the true feelings of victims from their casual conversations.

“Everyone was living at evacuation sites at the beginning. We received lots of clothes, blankets and futon bedding. But because they were secondhand, they soon got torn or holes appeared. Some of the women wanted to mend them, but by just going round and asking ‘What do you need?’ we couldn’t easily pick up detailed needs such as ‘We would like some needles and threads’.”
(Keita Inoue: Footbath team leader)

Residents request

The Net started receiving requests for items victims had hesitated to mention, such as “Children’s underwear was mistakenly delivered. Could I ask to change it for women’s underwear?”

Residents request

The Net carefully dealt with the requests of people who had to stay for a long time at the evacuation sites, such as “I need a plastic water container for cooking” and “I want some washing hangers”.

Roland and Tada

“One of the philosophies of Magokoro is this idea of ‘One step back’: the goal is to become unnecessary.”

“Well, rather than proceeding with what you think volunteering is like, I think you should always try and grasp exactly what’s happening in the environment all around you and respond to that. I believe that’s essential. Then you can develop some appropriate movement such as volunteering activities. That’s exactly what I tried to find in our activities here.”


Geographical features

The city of Tono welcomed and sent out many volunteers to the stricken areas and used them very effectively. The secrets behind its successful efforts were to rapidly set up a linkage between the private sector and the local government by using its geographical benefits, and encouraging self-management by the volunteers themselves.

Towns around Japan

Because Japan is surrounded by the ocean and is prone to earthquakes, there are many towns and cities that want to follow the example of Tono’s pioneering efforts as a base for behind-the-lines logistic support, including the reception of volunteers. They see it as a model case for creating their own future disaster prevention measures.


One of them is Minamiashigara City in the west part of Kanagawa Prefecture.

Good location for coastal support

At the time of a future disaster, this upland city located 15 kilometers inland could become a base for providing support to the coastal areas.


Minamiashigara City Hall is promoting disaster prevention measures by referring to Tono.

Shuhei Kato: Mayor of Minamiashigara

“Nice to meet you! Welcome to Minamiashigara City!”
(Shuhei Kato: Mayor, Minamiashigara City)

Shuhei Kato, the mayor, is the flag waver for the project.

Kato in Tohoku

He has made observation trips to the stricken Tohoku areas, including Kamaishi and Miyako, and experienced at firsthand the need for the quick linkage with coastal municipalities. And he has repeatedly collected information in Tono regarding how to create the foundations to provide behind-the-lines logistic support.


“How do you plan to use the lessons from Tono and the Magokoro Net organizations? How do you plan to utilize those here in Minamiashigara?”

“After all, it’s not the power of the government alone but also the private sector. What we will have to organize is an integrated power and preparedness to receive volunteers that involves everyone’s cooperation.”
(Shuhei Kato)

How can volunteers be welcomed at times of disasters and their support fully utilized?
Various local governments which could become bases for behind-the-lines logistic support have started preparing for potential disasters in the future.

Roland Kelts

“In terms of municipalities, preparing for what happened in Tohoku, and the aftermath of what happened in Tohoku, I think it’s critical for all regions throughout Japan. But of course, you know, what works in one city may not work in another city, what works in one region may not work in another region. You can learn from the model in Tono, but you can’t just copy it. I think any kind of human interactive system has to be tailored to the people who actually inhabit the region. That has to happen.”

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