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Quake Spurs New Volunteer Spirit in Japan

January 21, 1995

NISHINOMIYA, Japan (AP) _ Three days ago, five volunteers struggled to feed 1,500 people taking refuge in a gymnasium on the outskirts of Kobe. All they had was a meager supply of rice balls.

By today, the number of volunteers had climbed to 125, and food, donated by people and companies from across Japan, was so plentiful that officials feared some would spoil before it was eaten.

The days after Tuesday’s earthquake have seen a sudden explosion of volunteerism in Japan, long considered by its own citizens to have no tradition of social service.

News coverage of the quake and calls by radio announcers for volunteer assistance have inspired thousands to contribute both time and materials.

``Two days ago I brought some rice balls to the relief center and was asked to help out. I’ve been here since,″ said Natsuko Mizukami, a 25-year-old student.

Some 5,000 people have registered as volunteers with surprised relief officials, who said they didn’t need any more except doctors and nurses, Japan Broadcasting Corp. radio reported.

Among the volunteers, a group of college students who heard the radio appeals decided to gather their friends, and in a group of 30 people hiked the three hours from the nearest operating train station to a hard-hit area to help out.

The director of a propane gas company on the island of Kyushu loaded 20 workers into company trucks and drove to Kobe with tanks of gas, water and food to cook hot meals for survivors at relief centers. Each night they sleep in the trucks, and the next day they go to a different center.

``We thought about how we could help, and decided that this was the most logical way,″ said Naoyuki Maeda, the director of Kyushu Kamata gas company.

A Japanese private aid group that normally provides medical care in poorer Asian countries said it would station doctors and nurses around the clock at three Kobe relief centers.

Even Japan’s feared far-rightist groups joined in. More than 100 members of six rightist groups were cooking and distributing rice balls from a row of vans emblazoned with rightist slogans parked in downtown Kobe.

At the gymnasium relief center, officials say the city is now supplying only drinking water to the 1,500 quake victims. All of the bread, rice balls, apples, milk and hardboiled eggs distributed by the volunteers were privately donated, they say.

``The increase in volunteers is fantastic,″ said Kazumi Tadokoro, one of a handful of city officials at the center. ``We couldn’t handle this big a crowd without them.″

Volunteers have taken over food distribution, cleanup and waste disposal, and even entertain the survivors as they sit on blankets or mats spread on the gymnasium floor.

Less food and fewer volunteers are available, however, at many relief centers that are less accessible because of the extensive quake damage to roads and rail lines.

With relief budgets already badly stretched, officials also wonder what will happen if the flow of volunteers and donated goods slows over the months. Homeless survivors are likely to continue to need housing and food.

``Each day we look at how much food we have, and divide it by the number of people we need to serve,″ said Tadokoro. ``If we’re short, we may have to cut back sometime to just two meals a day.″

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