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Foreign Volunteers Japan – Distribution Issues in the Early Days

Distribution Issues in the Early Days

March 21st 2011 - FVJ Distribution to Ishinomaki

March 21st 2011 – FVJ Distribution to Ishinomaki

This is a post based on a recent conversation on the forum.  There’s been a lot of conflicting information that has been passed around regarding the issue of aid distribution, and the matter that even the Tokyo Metropolitan Government stopped taking donations as of March 21st, there’ve been a few questions, and mixed feelings regarding the distribution of aid.

Here are a couple of the comments that stood out during this discussion:

1. I take issue with charities that require donations to be new items only. We live in an economy where normal working middle class families can’t even afford *new* coats for their own kids, let alone someone else’s. Plus it does not meet the necessary ecological principle of recycling, which I think all charities should promote, regardless of their specific mission.

2. I was somewhat frustrated after the disaster, having dedicated several weeks, with a little well meaning help from my young son, collecting, laundering, ironing, folding, packaging and labeling used clothes in good to excellent condition to send to Tohoku and being refused by every single member of the Foreign Volunteers Japan forum I contacted saying they would only take new goods. According to information from Caroline Pover it was not true that the recipients were only happy with new clothing, and that many were happy to receive mine and many other people’s collected *used* donations the following, ie: this year when it came to light how much stuff they were still lacking (which they could have received a whole year earlier had it not been for efforts to HALT people’s donations, by both FVJ and local town offices which I also contacted at the time).

3. Furthermore, charities requesting only either new items or monetary donations create a social inbalance whereby the average (=poor) working person is not in a position to be able to offer anything and only the wealthy are falsely given the impression of being generous.

 Since these are similar to complaints that have appeared on various forums over the months, I thought it would be worth bringing some context towards the post-disaster donation, collection and distribution circumstances in March and April of 2011.

One of the largest issues when it came to aid runs in March and April had to do with fair distribution. This matter was insisted upon by town councils and the shelter community leaders themselves.

This matter added a huge logistics stickler for smaller groups. Instead of being able to do “air drop”-style distribution where we’d simply hand out everything we had brought to people directly, we had to put the goods into aid reception depots across Tohoku – where each type of goods would require enough quantity for fair distribution across an entire refugee shelter. For smaller shelters of 30-100 people, this was a little more manageable. But it became a massive logistics issue for the larger shelters of 200-800 people.

Dropping off aid at the Hebita #2 elementary school refugee shelter.

Frustratingly, a lot of aid at the Tohoku-based collection depots – ended up getting carted off to warehouses for “storage” because it was unable to be distributed fairly due to limited quantities.

In March as well, the other issue of course are goods that weren’t specifically needed at that time, goods that didn’t address a specific need, or goods that happen to have been distributed by another group a day earlier. Just of the trucks I went up with, we had to take certain goods back on many of the runs. One time it was 150kg of rice, because “there wasn’t enough clean water or electricity to cook it.” for groups that received a cast iron rice cooker from the military, they turned us down because they had “enough for the time being, and with 300 camping in a small building, there was no storage space available for putting the rice aside for a few days.”

Notice the plastic-wrapped bowls at this refugee shelter due to water-shortages.

The fair distribution of clothing on a large scale, used or not, is quite a huge task.  As you said in your example, on the small scale it IS appreciated by refugees when it came to small-scale bazaar-based ‘pick-as-you-like’ style distributions. We tried a few of those during community supporting events, but only a portion of the used clothing would get picked up. The leftovers would have to get carted back to Tokyo.

Then the simple logistics of transportation was another thorn in the side of delivery missions. To access the Tohoku expressway in mid-March, we needed to apply as an aid delivery mission through the police HQ  (then Ward Gov’t offices from late April). Gasoline was restricted to 2000yen/fill-up with several hour waits per truck. Up to 5000yen with the permit, thankfully.

Thankfully, with the emergency permit we could also cut in line at local stations…   However, when it came to the Tohoku Expressway for the first 10 days following the disaster, it turns out that ALL of the vehicles on the highway were emergency vehicles. Compared to ambulances, police trucks, care trucks, etc, our FVJ trucks didn’t have priority.  Adding gas-line time and transport logistics meant that we often needed to rent the two-ton trucks from Nippon or Toyota Rental for more than 24hours at a time. Most gas stations we encountered had “sold out” signs on them. This was due to a emergency law that forced gas stations to withhold 30% of their supply…    Yeah – A law written to “help” in a “potential” emergency strangled distribution efforts during the real emergency immediate relief phase.

2000yen Limit for Gasoline in March 2011

Renting a two-ton cost between ¥20,000-35,000yen. Gas worked out to ¥10,000-20,000 depending on traffic jams and lengthy drives, purchases of specifically requested medicine/aid/supplies worked out to ¥130,000-300,000yen on most tuns, and the purchase of tarps and rope added more. Intermittent tolls added another ¥16,000 (it was hit/miss whether the highways would honor the permits during regularly changing regulations) and other logistics had to be taken into account as well.

Most of the requests coming in were for water (if it was tough to buy in Tokyo for locals, it was a LOT harder to source in bulk, and often required distant drives to pick up), specific foods, futons, flashlights, diapers, tampons, nearly endless calls for warm underwear and socks. Straight through until late-April, most sites did not have access to enough water, time or staff to handle laundry. So socks/underwear had to be redistributed every 4-5 days.

When it came to –
1 – the priority of immediate needs
2 – the costs of transport
3 – the difficulty of sorting, labeling, and boxing used clothes in quantities of similar items that could get fairly distributed,
4 – the inability to do any laundry in the disaster areas
5 – the fact of unneeded goods got sent back to Tokyo if not specifically requested, or not accepted…

…  All were part of a larger puzzle of the arduous web of aid distribution.

Now, on top of that.

The above posts mention how many collection depots “stopped accepting” donations. This wasn’t a decision to cut-off aid. ALL of the depots we listed on FVJ ended up getting overwhelmed with donations that logistically could not get delivered up to Tohoku in a reasonable time period.

We had some local business that had much of their offices filled to the roof with baked beans and pineapple juice. Tokyo International School and Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office were some of the first to have to close their doors to unrequested donations.

One room filled with aid would take 4-5 trucks runs to move. Even with an average cost of¥50,000 to move one truck of aid, it wasn’t possible for these groups to muster ¥250,000 per small-room of aid just for sending up goods that had a reasonable chance of rejection.

Unloading AID into the DSP warehouse in Natori, Miyagi

When it comes to donations – yes – billions of dollars were donated… To the Red Cross – which sat on it for months, and continues to sit on the bulk of that. But little of that was directed towards smaller groups working on the ground who didn’t have access to the major donation collection networks.

Most of the FVJ runs’ costs were paid out of our volunteers’ pockets. Buying the emergency medicine on many of the early runs was handled by Scott, buying vegetables and fruit was often done by Timo, and buying nonperishables and diapers was often done by Garin. I personally have sunk 500,000 to 600,000 of money into FVJ projects. Unfortunately, we’ve got to admit that early projects to raise funds never really solidified, and we still technically owe a lot back to the volunteers who ran the early runs. Hopefully though, we can move forward in time for the March 11th memorial, and find a new momentum for bringing a new priority to FVJ projects.

I promise you that the decision to have to turn down used clothing donations in April was simply due to the sheer difficulty of the logistics of transportation, storage and distribution issues. If the refusal of the donation came across as rude, we do need to apologize for that. However, we hope that the members concerned about the distribution difficulties and complications in March accept that there were specific reasons for the decisions that were made along the line for these projects.

Hope that offers some clarification.


In peace and solidarity


– Mike

On behalf of FVJ


  1. Re. distribution of used clothing: Donors often don’t realize the troubles/difficulties of giving this out. SOME communities will be more than happy with a lightly used jacket, but many would not. “Tohoku” is a very big place. Even within one area (Ishinomaki) there are incredibly differing needs depending on where you are.

    Wanting to donate something doesn’t give someone an obligation to accept it. This is why that when giving, it’s best to give responsibly. Responding to requests when they come is great. But you should research whether or not something is required before trying to give it out, to save yourself some hassle.

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  3. Mark says:


    I’m going to Japan, Utsunomiya to get my daughter at University of Utsunomiya. I’m from Hawaii, and wanted to know for the 2 weeks I’m up there how can I help or Is this just to short a time to assist?