In the wake of the March 2011 tsunami, hundreds of Japanese citizens in their teens and twenties traveled to the eastern coast of their country aboard the Peace Boat, a high-priced tourist charter converted into an emergency relief operation during natural disasters. According to Patrick Tucker, writing for The Futurist (November/December 2011), 90 percent of the volunteers appeared to come from the country’s schools or unemployment rolls—members of a so-called lost generation struggling to find full-time work in an increasingly stratified economy known as kachigumi shoshite makegumi (society of winners and losers). “Peace Boat appeared to be winning the contest to send as many volunteers as possible, which enables them to cover the gaps left open by other, well-funded relief groups,” Tucker reports.
The Japanese army’s work in the relief zone, for instance, was protracted and impersonal. The troops surveyed the scene during helicopter flybys, wrote up a safety manual, and then—three long weeks after the tsunami hit—finally began to distribute food. The army’s relocation efforts also focused on getting survivors miles away, even if they wanted to stay and rebuild their homes. Peace Boat workers offered immediate on-the-ground assistance and tried to keep communities united, by doing things such as housing survivors in local shelters organized by neighborhood.
While the Red Cross and other organizations tried to funnel public interest toward donating money, the Peace Boat initiative harnessed human power. “The message went viral,” says The Futurist, “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.”