At the time of the disaster, I was in my second year of living in Japan and working as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET programme at the time of the disaster. Being in Tottori, [on the Sea of Japan coast, some 800km southwest of Tokyo], I didn’t feel its direct impact. Nevertheless, I sensed that the events of March 11th, 2011 marked the nation’s collective consciousness, and I too felt a bond with the country that had become home. As a newcomer, I’d experienced the kindness and generosity of Japanese people on more occasions than I can recall. I wanted to lend a hand in the affected areas; do some small bit to contribute. I was able to find time after completing my teaching contract, as part of a return trip to Asia this winter, and joined the 49th dispatch from March 10th to 17th, 2012.
To my untrained and bleary eyes, things looked normal at first in Ishinomaki when the night bus from Tokyo pulled in to Kasuka [formerly a textiles factory and Peace Boat’s headquarters in Ishinomaki] at 5am on a drizzly Saturday morning.
It wasn’t until en route to our first work assignment that I was really able to get an idea of the devastation, almost exactly a year later. Our bus took us past massive mountains of debris – eerily orderly-looking from a distance, up close revealed to be piles of mangled metal, wrecked cars, and so on – an amount roughly equivalent to 27 years of landfill. We saw many houses with their first stories blown out. There weren’t any boats belly-up in the middle of the road, rather, a definite sense of empty space. A one-legged statue-of-liberty-lookalike presiding over the waterfront confirmed this impression.
Our first job was to clean up after a one-year anniversary memorial held the evening before. A flower design had been laid out by the waterfront, and lit with candles. It was viewed from the higher ground where the fortunate had manage to seek refuge when the big waves arrived. Feeling the symbolism behind the thousands of candles and admiring the pretty, quintessentially Japanese design, we sought to disassemble it with care.
We spent 3 of the next 4 days landscaping a park in the space dividing one of the city’s busy thoroughfares. This 1km-long section of the boulevard ran through Sakanamachi, literally ‘Fish Town,’ a name that took on a new meaning when the tsunami dumped the contents of nearby seafood warehousing facilities throughout the area. Urban beautification was a motivator for making this park. Efforts were being made to restore an area where cherry blossom trees once stood. The idea was to have some flowers blooming in that same space by summer, so local people could go for walks there. In preparation for the planting of seeds, scheduled for the following week, Peace Boat crews levelled the ground (removing remaining pieces of debris), spread fertilizer, turned over the soil, and created a rocky-gravel footpath that winded through the area. To do this we used wheelbarrows (or ‘neko’), shovels, rakes, and our hands.
We also traveled one day to the fishing hamlet of Samenoura, about 45 minutes away by bus. It was apparent that these outlying coastal parts were further behind in the recovery progress. At the time of our visit, the issue of whether to rebuild in low-lying areas was unresolved.
We spent the day collecting oyster shells that will be used in the harvesting of a delicacy and local specialty hoya, ‘sea pineapple.’ It will take a few years to regenerate the area’s main industry, we were told. There was cause for joy on the day we visited. Local fishermen had received a new boat (a gift from another part of Japan) and would be able to return to the water! Joined by their wives, they blessed the occasion with a traditional ceremony and invited us to momentarily put down our claw-like implements, (which, along with thick rubber gloves, were the tools of safe and speedy sifting) and catch some proffered mochi. Their smiles that day spoke a thousand words.
Although my interaction with the people of Ishinomaki was limited, I felt that they appreciate the presence of volunteers, even though the focus has shifted from recovery to reconstruction. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend the act of moving forward in the face of such loss and devastation. I hope that the continued presence of volunteers acts as a positive motivation for residents to complete this seemingly herculean task.
Going there put things in perspective. I had lived close to the sea in Japan so it wasn’t a huge leap to imagine this kind of calamity striking my town. It’s tough to reconcile a random event that caused such tragedy and complex consequences. Although volunteering in these circumstances was a physically and mentally intense experience, I found myself in autopilot mode. Knowing (or imagining) the hardships endured by affected people made things like bathing (which consisted of two sento visits that week), hot evening meals, and a roof over our heads seem like a lot. Doubtless, many volunteers return home with renewed appreciation for what they take for granted in daily life.
Going forward, I would like to encourage foreigners living in or travelling to Japan to volunteer if they have the time and disposition to do so. However, I recognize that this kind of participation may not be for everyone, so I also hope tourism to Japan and the Tohoku region is promoted. I want to dispel the myth that it’s not safe to visit a place like Ishinomaki.
It really took going there to gain an idea of the scope of this disaster. One example was seeing the ecological problems caused by seawater entering the rice paddies and vegetable fields, rendering them unusable for years.
I learned that in the days and weeks following the earthquake and tsunami, affected people sometimes said things like “We can’t accept help because there must be others worse off than us.” I suppose that says volumes about the Japanese character (and people of Tohoku are often said to be especially traditional in this sense). Still, I could see how this might surprise people from the West who are more individualistically-minded.
I was impressed by the number of long-term volunteers. Young people – if not in age, then certainly at heart – who were mostly Japanese, had spent weeks and months helping out. Their dedication was, and remains, inspiring.
Whenever a disaster happens I want to help the victims and affected communities as much as I can, but often it is not easy to be physically involved in recovery and rebuilding efforts. Living in Japan made it easier for me to get to Ishinomaki and volunteer.
I also wanted to help because although I live in Japan, Ehime is so far away from the affected area that sometimes it seems like a different country. I wanted to understand for myself how bad the scale of the disaster was.
I am glad I was able to help after the first anniversary of the disaster because now, as people in other countries begin to forget about the disaster, I can use my experience to educate them about the situation and hopefully generate continued support for the Tohoku region and communities in Ishinomaki. I have had the opportunity to talk with many of my junior and senior high school students in Ehime about the disaster.
I was surprised by the fact that some parts of Ishinomaki city were undamaged, while in other places there was literally nothing left. I felt shocked over the scale of the destruction to the buildings that are awaiting demolition. Sometimes I was amazed at how much has already been cleaned up. At other times I was struck by buildings that remain virtually untouched after a year, such as an apartment building near where we worked in Samenoura.
In many apartments in this building, things remained destroyed as they were on March 11. Tatami had been forced back and dragged forward by the power of the tsunami, while cell phone chargers, heaters and tv satellite dishes remained dangling off balconies. As a teacher, I was shocked, and saddened by the state of the schools. There was one junior high in particular that we drove past that had been badly damaged, but students continued to practice baseball outside. I thought Ishinomaki was beautiful. I think this is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Japan.
I spent three days in Samenoura – about a one hour drive from Ishinomaki city – helping
collect and string together oyster shells. We helped local fishermen who will put the shell strings into the ocean to harvest hoya. It will take another 4 years for the hoya to grow large enough to be harvested.
I spent one day in Ogatsu-cho helping to move stone into the town hall and cleaning up some of the fire station sheds. Ogatsu cho is famous for its hard slate which is used to make calligraphy inkwells and roof tiles. I think working there had a big impact on me because on our first night in Ishinomaki we were shown a DVD recording of the tsunami hitting the town. The film had been recorded from the roof of the town office, which we worked in. I think this place impacted me also because of all the debris that was still there. In the fire station sheds there was still mud and some water, as well as objects like tires and PET bottles stuck to the ceiling. And behind the sheds we found a car that had been washed there.
I helped make fields for 3 days in the Kitakami area, and the Mizuhama area which are rural communities in the outlying parts of the greater Ishinomaki area. These were the days when we had the most interaction with the locals. The farmers told us their stories of the disaster and we were welcomed into their temporary housing. One couple, the Sato’s, ate with us in the community rooms of their housing area. Mrs. Sato prepared some delicious wakame dishes and a coconut pudding.
I hope it has helped to restore the spirits of the local people a little and I hope they don’t feel like people are forgetting about them now that it has been over one year since the disaster. One day, we were told that some of the fishermen we worked with ate lunch with the volunteers for the first time that day. Before they would eat separately because they found it hard to accept help to do a job they had done all their lives. I hope that they do not feel bad about accepting the help and they can form strong relationships with volunteers.
I think some of the people we worked with wanted to tell us about their experiences so they had someone to talk to about it. I think it was an opportunity for them to be able to do this, and for us volunteers, to be able to hear first-hand accounts of the way the disaster affected the people of Ishinomaki.
For myself, I think the work has given me a greater appreciation for my friends, family and the fact that I have a home and a job. It has given me experiences that I can talk about with other people, to help generate continued support for the region.
After our work in Samenoura, we were invited to visit again four years from now, when the first season of the new hoya will be harvested. Although the work we did there was only minimal given the scale of rebuilding the fishermens’ business, it gave me a sense of accomplishment to know that we had helped them on their road to recovery. I would like to revisit here in four years.
We also experienced a magnitude five earthquake that went on for about 20 to 30 seconds, causing everyone to head for the door. As someone who has grown up in New Zealand, which is constantly at risk of various natural disasters, I was constantly told to ‘be prepared.’ But when disasters don’t affect us for a long time, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety. I think this experience taught me how important it is to always be prepared.
I was surprised that we spent a lot of time interacting one on one with people. I had thought we would work with bigger community groups. Another interesting aspect was that the people were so willing to invite us into their temporary housing. People were very generous even though they had lost everything. Japanese people are very generous so this isn’t surprising, so much as it is humbling. I think the range of emotions I felt during my time there surprised me. There were many happy times, and I made some amazing friends with other volunteers. But there were also times when I had to stop myself from breaking down, particularly at times when we had to work in sites that were people’s homes. This made the disaster so much more personal to me, but I knew I had to keep going for the people of Ishinomaki, as they are the ones who have suffered, not me as a volunteer.
I think the stories that the survivors told us will have a lasting impression on me. On our last day volunteering we were helping to make a field in Aikawa close to a ruined elementary school. The farmer we worked with told us that he wants to rebuild his house higher up on a hill so he can see the water and will know if another tsunami comes. In New Zealand sea views are a prized real estate feature, but his reason for wanting a sea view was very different to any I had heard before. This was one of many times in Ishinomaki when I realized what is really important in life – friends, family and community. The people of Ishinomaki we worked with were fishermen and farmers. They lived their lives simply, growing their own food and working as part of a community. I think I have learned a lot through their determination and the way they approach the mammoth task of rebuilding their lives.
I am surprised about how much work was done in the six months that I wasn’t in Ishinomaki. Some places were totally cleaned up and a lot of temporary shopping malls and restaurants are now properly built. It is always impressive to see how fast and efficiently Japanese people work. I believe I wouldn’t see that kind of progress in any other country.
But still, it is obvious that an enormous amount of work still needs to be done. Many places remain as they were a year ago and even in March we were still clearing sludge from houses.
I took on more of a leadership role this time but I do not think that being a leader impacts your work. Of course as a bilingual leader I had to translate but other than that we always worked as a team. Everyone was looking out for each other and taking care of each other.
Last September, when I visited Ishinomaki, I noticed that there was some kind of a turning point for the fishermen there. I was able to participate in a festival in Oginohama. Before this, many fishermen had given up hope and never wanted to work again. But at the festival we were told to come back next year and eat their fish. Now, I don’t feel much despair among the fishermen anymore. I am amazed by their strength and determination to get back to where they left off.
I talked to some people who lost their houses and workplaces but no one from their family. Even though everything they owned was washed away, every single person was grateful that they did not lose someone. They all seemed to be at peace with everything that has happened.
One thing that bothers me is that, in some areas, the government has not decided whether people will be able to rebuild their houses. It’s been over a year but some people still don’t know if they will be able to go back to their homes.
To be honest I don’t know what to expect or what I want to achieve when I next visit the area. I just hope I can make a difference for the people in Ishinomaki, even if it is just something small, and let them know that the world has not forgotten about them.