Volunteers helping March 11 survivors are finding it hard to continue their activities due to the onset of severe winter weather in the Tohoku region.
Obstacles such as colder weather, frozen roads and snow are expected to shrink volunteer numbers, especially those coming from outside the disaster-hit prefectures.
Some local governments in the three hardest-hit prefectures--Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima--have prodded volunteers to put off their activities until the spring.
Fears are also rising that many volunteers will find it hard to visit survivors, and some have voiced anxieties that without volunteers, life at temporary housing units may feel more lonely.
A small tea party was held at the No. 8 temporary housing complex in the Kozuchi district of Otsuchicho, Iwate Prefecture, in late November. The party was sponsored by a local volunteer group, Tono Magokoro Network. The group has held similar events at temporary housing units throughout the disaster-struck region.
The party in Kozuchi was attended by about 20 people.
A volunteer with Tono Magokoro, Toshiaki Nara, 29, spoke to the elderly as well as young mothers, asking them things like, "How are things going these days?"
In reply to Nara's question, one evacuee, Soyo Usuzawa, 79, said she felt lonely living alone in her temporary housing unit.
Hearing this, another evacuee, Kazuko Yamaguchi, 61, said, "Excuse me, but I've just learned we lived in the same neighborhood [before the disaster], you know?"
Usuzawa and Yamaguchi said the event was a chance to get acquainted with each other for the first time.
"I felt it was rather awkward to talk to other survivors here, as some of them might be depressed about losing family members in the tsunami," Yamaguchi said.
"I feel grateful to be able to have a person who can facilitate conversation among us," she said.
While watching the survivors chat over a cup of coffee, Nara said, "I'm afraid our group may be forced to suspend our activities during the winter season."
Nara, who formerly worked as an acupuncturist and Chinese medicinal therapist in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, has been working with the volunteer group since August. He has been staying in a Tono municipal gymnasium.
To get to Otsuchicho, Nara and several volunteers had to drive along mountainous roads for about 30 kilometers from Tono.
With winter settling in, the roads have frozen on some days. Many volunteers are unaccustomed to driving in these conditions. "As I have never driven on snowy roads before, I think it will be very hard to continue our activities when the snow gets deeper," Nara said.
Usuzawa said, "I feel uneasy living through the winter at this temporary housing, as it is quite unfamiliar to me. I want the volunteers to continue coming here."
Some local governments are racking their brains about how to deal with the task of accepting volunteers this winter.
In Yamamotocho, Miyagi Prefecture, the town government has cut back volunteer activities since the beginning of December. Now, volunteers dispose of tsunami debris only two days a week, compared with six days before. The government has also trimmed the number of volunteers to 50 a day from 100.
It is increasingly difficult for volunteers to sleep in tents and other makeshift lodgings in the face of the severe chill, officials said. And the town government has decided to accept only volunteers who are from groups that have secured such facilities as private homes that provide rooms and board for their members.
In Minami-Sanrikucho, the town government has provided volunteers living in their cars with disposable body warmers and a place to eat meals.
A Minami-Sanrikucho government official said, "We still need volunteers for outdoor jobs such as debris disposal and want as many volunteers as possible to help us in spite of the difficult winter conditions."
(Dec. 14, 2011)