By Melissa Tan
The Japanese people, historically influenced by ethical and religious beliefs of Buddhism, have responded as a collective community and remained altruistic in spite of recent devastations in their country. These characteristics have been personified by a group of elderly citizens who have volunteered to risk their lives in place of young workers for cleanup efforts at the heavily damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck approximately 130 km off the eastern coast of Japan, resulting in a devastating tsunami and widespread destruction of property and infrastructure. As of July, statistics by Earthquake-Report.com indicated a death toll of 15,588 with 5,133 still missing and hundreds of thousands left homeless. Dubbed as the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, the earthquake and tsunami left dangerous ripple effects on local nuclear power facilities, triggering explosions, fires and partial meltdowns, all of which have leaked dangerous levels of radiation.
In response to efforts to bring the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant under control, the Skilled Veterans Corp, a civic group formed mostly of former professionals all over the age of 60, lobbied the Japanese government to allow them to take the place of the younger workers. Yasuteru Yamada, the 72 year-old retired engineer who founded the group, recruited approximately 500 volunteers through word-of-mouth and his embracement of technology, e.g. e-mail and Twitter, to take on the task of risking radiation exposure. Kazuko Sasaki, also 72 years-old, explained her participation in the Skilled Veterans Corp as a moral obligation to the country’s future, “My generation built these nuclear plants, so we have to take responsibility for them. We cannot dump this on the next generation.”
But why would people risk exposure to high levels of radiation to help people they do not personally know? Religion has had a major influence on Japanese culture; particularly, Buddhism is a strong basis for philanthropic activities in the country. By volunteering one’s time and/or money, an individual would be acting in line with dhamma, “principles of behaviours that human beings ought to follow so as to fit in with the right natural order of things”. Charity is perhaps the greatest of virtues given that it “[displays] a person’s compassion, love, generosity and community mindedness”. Despite such benevolent acts, individuals are expected to do so for the sake of giving and not for any form of compensation (dāna).
Further, to some individuals and societies, the act of sacrificing one’s life for the greater good of the community, compounded by the fact that financial or material rewards are not expected in return, most definitely falls outside of commonly accepted principles of codified generosity in what is considered “appropriate” to give. Time, money or gifts are understood as typical acts of volunteerism7. Generosity in and of itself, of course, is not exclusive to the Japanese people; there are many historic and present examples of volunteerism and philanthropy all over the world, as well as those influenced by a variety of religions.
Some western media organizations have gone as far as to dub the Skilled Veterans Corp as the “suicide corps”. However, the volunteers do not view it in such a manner; instead, they consider their actions, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, as the right thing to do in order to allow the next generation an opportunity to live their lives, just as the elderly have already lived theirs. As contested by one brave volunteer, “We have to work but never die”10.
1 Earthquake Report. (2011). Japan Tohoku tsunami and earthquake: The death toll is climbing again!. Retrieved from http://earthquake-report.com/2011/08/04/japan-tsunami-following-up-the-aftermath-part-16-june/.
2 Craft, L. (2011, July 4). Elderly Japanese volunteer for nuke cleanup. CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/07/04/earlyshow/main20076634.shtml.
3 Craft, L. (2011, Sept. 12). Japanese Seniors: Send Us To Damaged Nuclear Plant. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2011/09/12/140402430/japanese-seniors-send-us-to-damaged-nuclear-plant?sc=17&f=1001.
4 Access to Insight. (2011). A Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms. Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/glossary.html.
9 Lah, K. (2011, May 31). Japanese seniors volunteer for Fukushima ‘suicide corps’. CNN. Retrieved from http://articles.cnn.com/2011-05-31/world/japan.nuclear.suicide_1_nuclear-plant-seniors-group-nuclear-crisis?_s=PM:WORLD.
10 Buerk, R. (2011, May 31). Japan pensioners volunteer to tackle nuclear crisis. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13598607.