Topcon Volunteers Lend Physical and Moral Support to Japan Recovery

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Several individuals at Topcon Positioning Systems, Livermore, Calif.–a subsidiary of Topcon Corp, headquartered in Tokyo, Japan–were so moved by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Tohoku (northeast) district of Japan that they wanted to do even more than donate money to the relief effort. They wanted to personally go there and assist the cleanup in the aftermath of the disaster, which caused more than 15,000 deaths and left more than 150,000 residents homeless.

Through the TOGETHER Japan Relief Volunteer Program, a partnership project between the Japan Travel Bureau USA and Delta Airlines with support from the Japan National Tourism Organization to assist Tohoku earthquake and tsunami victims in northeast Japan, 12 Topcon employees spent three days cleaning up debris during a tour that was open to the U.S. public for a week starting in late September. JTB provided guides and interpreters for the Topcon group and Delta Airlines provided travel.

The Topcon volunteers were Mick Yamazaki, chief operating officer; Joe Brabec, chief technical officer; Ande Doria, engineering designer; Dorene Strand, document control supervisor; Eric Ivers, machine control product manager; Josh Rau, mechanical engineer; Mary Rotermund, technical publications supervisor; Matt Harman, application engineer; Michael Chelberg, engineering manager; Mike Tibbit, advertising programs and operations manager at the Cabot, Ark., office; Renard Graham, lead senior software engineer; and Steve McCain, director of product management.

"It was a shocking day–we have many Japanese employees who work in our U.S. offices and we have strong bonds with many people," said Bryan Gillette, Topcon’s vice president of human resources. "A dark cloud definitely fell over the company. While none of our employees or families were injured, we still felt the pain of that nation.

"But Topcon people are very resilient and rallied together to raise funds and help the relief effort. Shortly after the disaster, I sent out a company-wide email message requesting donations to the relief effort, which the company matched. In all, employees contributed $13,000 to the Japan Red Cross earthquake relief fund."

"A lot of inquiries about how to help Japan had been raised by employees inside Topcon," Yamazaki said. "Other than the relief money that the company and individual employees contributed, people were seeking a way to physically help. Then I came to find that the JTB, a company we do business with, was considering the Japan relief trip for people in the U.S. This was the perfect match for us."

The idea for the trip originated from a Topcon engineer, who asked his manager if he could go on the tour, adding that he would pay the fees and even take time off. Others expressed similar interests, so Gillette and several executives agreed to send a Topcon contingent on the tour.

The Topcon employees, along with other volunteers to the program, were assigned to the cleanup of a wood chip factory in Tohoku. The factory helps support the local paper mill which, in turn, supports construction projects and recovery for the area. The volunteers cleared the factory of debris so it could be put back into operation.

"The seriousness of the situation sank in as we entered the affected area for the first time and the bus suddenly became very quiet," Brabec said. "Pictures from afar cannot do justice to the amount of devastation we saw firsthand–this after six months of cleanup by others before our arrival. But the determination of the volunteers to make a difference came through even on the first day, as we completed the cleanup of our first building in about 90 minutes, totally catching our hosts by surprise. We completed more than they had scheduled for us, totally destroying their schedule."

Tibbit recalled how the volunteers improvised with available materials to clean up the mill. "Only a few shovels were provided, so our team improvised methods for moving the various materials," he said. "Sheets of plywood became human-powered bulldozers and plastic buckets were used to carry flood sediment. Everything was stacked to be hauled away. I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of destruction we witnessed. The amount of work that had already been done in the cleanup efforts was enormous but was dwarfed by how much was left to do."

"Once we gained momentum, and a few tools, we began to make real progress and did not want to stop for lunch breaks," McCain recalled. "We would have been happy to work additional sites if they would have allowed it."

In addition to assisting in cleanup efforts, the tour was designed to help raise morale among the victims of the disaster. The group visited an orphanage near Tokyo, meeting with the principal who took the group on a tour, showing damage from the earthquake as well as explaining the mission of the facility and its staff. The group provided gifts to the children and played with them in the orphanage gym. "It was so nice to see the kids’ joy when we visited the orphanage, knowing a few of them were directly or indirectly affected by the tsunami," Doria said.

At the close of the trip, the group visited Topcon Corporation Headquarters (THQ) in Tokyo, where they were greeted with applause. "Our visit to THQ was the most surprising event of the trip," Tibbit said. "I had partially prepared myself for the devastation of the disaster and the enthusiastic welcome at the orphanage, but the reception we received from all members at THQ caught me, and the rest of the volunteers, by total surprise." On the last day of the trip, President Nick Uchida presented the group with a letter of appreciation for its efforts. "The Japanese people appreciated our physical effort but also acknowledged the `heart’ the group showed by coming to Japan," Yamazaki said.

Gillette agreed, recalling that shortly after joining the company, he found a floral arrangement from Topcon on his doorstep in response to the death of his wife’s grandmother. "It was a small gesture compared to what was done for the Japan relief effort, but it shows that the company cares about the well-being of people and our employees demonstrate the same through their time, their wallets, and their sentiments," he said.

Note: All images courtesy Topcon Positioning Systems

Don Talend of Write Results Inc., West Dundee, Ill., is a print and e-content developer specializing in covering construction, technology and innovation.

A 1.255Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE