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Photograph: Freeimages.com / renato cardoso

Two days after twin earthquakes rocked southern Japan in April, Takehiko Yoshizawa received a phone call from someone in the region who tearfully asked for a car.

The call prompted Yoshizawa, who leads the Japan Car Sharing Association in the north-eastern city of Ishinomaki, to travel 1,200 kilometres south-west to Kumamoto prefecture to start looking for cars for residents affected by the quakes which left 49 people dead.

“At first, I did not think they would need many cars in Kumamoto because it was not hit by a tsunami,” unlike in north-eastern Japan five years earlier, where about 18,500 people were killed in an earthquake and ensuing tsunami, said Yoshizawa.

“But, in Kumamoto, some cars were buried under a collapsed house and others damaged by falling debris. Luckily, we were soon able to find someone in neighbouring Kagoshima prefecture, who agreed to provide a car,” he said.

In two months, Yoshizawa was able to collect 36 cars and launched a Kumamoto branch, where residents can use the vehicles for free.

Ten of the vehicles were donated by Abekatsu Motors in Ishinomaki, one of the hardest-hit areas by the tsunami in March 2011.

Managing director Katsutoshi Abe said the company had wanted to give something back to society after receiving much help five years ago.

“We were very encouraged at that time,” Abe said. “It’s important to help each other.”

About 450 cars, including dozens of customers’ under repair, at the company were swept away by the 2011 tsunami and its office demolished, he recalled.

In Ishinomaki city alone, as many as 60,000 vehicles were lost in the disaster, Yoshizawa said.

In March 2011, Yoshizawa, a native of the western city of Himeji, began volunteering in Fukushima, where hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to leave their homes after the country’s worst nuclear accident, which was triggered by the quake and the tsunami.

A month later, his mentor Akira Yamada, who led a volunteer movement in recovery efforts following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, suggested Yoshizawa launch a community car-sharing programme in the tsunami-hit north-east.

Yoshizawa, a soft-spoken man with a ready smile, accepted the idea although he had never heard of the words “car sharing” and had seldom driven a car.

When he received the very first car donated by one company in Kyoto, “I had to drive to Ishinomaki from Kyoto and I got very nervous,” he recalled.

Yoshizawa set up the association in Ishinomaki, a conservative fishing town with the population of 148,000, and the group was able to collect dozens of vehicles within months, including 31 from used-car dealer Gulliver International.

Yoshizawa has boosted the number of cars to about 100, including Mitsubishi Motors’ electric vehicles i-MiEV, so that locals could utilize them.

Yoshizawa said he is grateful that the group’s initiative was supported by carmakers, parts manufacturers, many volunteers and friends.

In Ishinomaki, many citizens still tend to turn to authorities for help, however, he has seen volunteer work is woven into the fabric of more people’s daily life, he said.

Hisayo Aizawa, a city resident, joined Yoshizawa’s association as a volunteer.

“When I heard about the car-sharing programme, I thought there was something I could do to help,” said Aizawa.

In 2011, the tsunami killed her husband and swept away the couple’s rice store and house in the coast area. She and her children have lived in temporary housing in the city for nearly five years.

Since the fifth anniversary of the tsunami passed in March, the region has rarely captured national media attention. And many volunteers and non-governmental organizations left there even before the anniversary.

Meanwhile, Yoshizawa is eager to expand the group’s car-sharing programme in Ishinomaki. He and some other staff left Japan last week for Austria and Switzerland to study car sharing programmes there, including CARUSO Carsharing.

“I have never thought about leaving this place,” Yoshizawa said. “We would like to create a model of community car sharing.”

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