Clearing a way

Photos courtesy of Arata Otake and Kenji Ichijo

Kenji Ichijo – Volunteer aid worker – Ishinomaki

“Everything I saw was beyond my imagination. Everything was so real.” These were the first thoughts of Kenji Ichijo as he entered the devastated city of Ishinomaki, in the Miyagi prefecture of Japan. Levelled by the March 11th earthquake and ravaged by the following tsunami the town and the lives of its inhabitants have been shattered, “What used to be a town is now a field of rubble, in no condition at all people could ever live in.”

Working as part of a six person strong Peace Boat International Volunteer team, twenty-five year old Kenji was one of the first volunteers on the ground in the once affluent city, “All the houses were destroyed, I could only see one house left standing. The ground floor was gone but on the second floor twenty people where living cramped into a single room, it was that level of devastation.” Joining the Peace Boat advance team of three staff members Kenji spent just over eight days aiding the people of the disaster affected areas, “I just wondered what kind of path they would take going forward, being on the spot there everything hit me real (sic).”

Houses tossed around and toppled over like children’s building blocks.

Waking each morning in damp sleeping bags and frost covered tents Kenji admits conditions were difficult for the volunteers “Initially I couldn’t sleep but the amazing thing about people is we get used to things.” Despite his own discomfort he realised that it must have been much worse for the local people without such luxuries. “Those who fled their homes with nothing must have really suffered.” After a brief breakfast and morning meeting volunteers would begin their arduous daily work at 9am concentrating their efforts into three areas, the distribution of much needed supplies, clearing the mud from town buildings and preparing hot meals for those they could. Work had to end at 5.30pm each day as without electricity or gas the town would recede into a freezing pitch black silence.

Kenji’s initial days were spent on the distribution of supplies, with demand constantly changing, “People can only think day to day up there. The first three days people called for food and blankets but after that people wanted to rebuild so it was boots, rain gear and shovels. When they would ask for these things you could feel the resolve and enthusiasm of the local people trying to rebuild their home.” As the second week approached people clamoured for radios as a lifeline to the outside world, “there is no information reaching people, they are shut off so radios became very important”. Although most people’s demands were practical, reaching for down jackets and clean underwear, the chorus of excitement when a ‘cute’ piece of clothing was discovered in the mountain of donations really warmed Kenji’s heart, “it made me smile that they would still think of that.”

Volunteers scrape away the black oozing mud pervades every first floor building,

However in a shell shocked community people’s reactions proved varied to the volunteers’ efforts, “Everyone’s reaction was different. At times people politely said thank you, sometimes they were not happy for outsiders being there. This was rare and we can never understand what they are going through.” He found people freezing in their cars on the rooftop car parks who refused tents when offered, choosing to stay in their cars “hanging onto whatever they had left.” Kenji began to see how volunteers are essential to the people of Ishinomaki’s survival, “People told me ‘if you hadn’t come here today we would have nothing to eat’ ”.

During this distribution work Kenji first saw the frustrations that plague any disaster relief work, with the roads almost impassable and the local infrastructure decimated small pockets of people were suffering more than most. “No supplies and no helpers can reach these people at all. Some places people are getting two meals a day but some people are getting no food at all.” He saw this problem exacerbated by what infrastructure was left, explaining that areas which still possessed their municipal leaders were receiving help but those without were not, leaving them to beg from their stricken neighbours. Describing these groups as “broken communities” Kenji was shocked to report that “Initially the people were told not to distribute supplies to those not in the evacuation centres, I had to ask myself is this sane? The evacuation centres have limited space and not all people can fit in.” He made it his, and his fellow volunteers, task to fill this gap by spending most of the second half of his week finding these lost communities to restore supply lines and identify the places that need the most help, and happily confessed that by the time he left for Tokyo “eventually we could pass things to people in their homes, things are getting better.”

A list of items to be delivered to those living in the unreachable “broken communities” of Ishinomaki City

After distribution of supplies came the gruelling task of clearing the mud that caked every first floor building. The work was hard taking days to clear a single building, with the focus on public spaces such as municipal buildings, temples and senior citizen’s homes where people could congregate together to shelter from the harsh nature of their now daily lives. Despite the backbreaking work Kenji found the time to help individuals as well, working overtime to clear the mud from a nurse’s tiny apartment so she could have somewhere to rest after working all day and night at the evacuation centre. Despite the freezing temperatures, the volunteers were soon mud splattered and drenched in sweat. Kenji remembers bemoaning the lack of bathing facilities before catching himself, realising for him there would be a warm bath waiting back in Tokyo but for the people of the affected areas the wait for basic amenities would be much longer.

Kenji (third from the left) and his team outside a nurse’s small apartment they cleared of mud and debris.

Asked why he chose to leave behind running water and all the comforts of modern life and head north, Kenji replied “I simply decided I should do something immediately.” He admits although the clean up and rebuilding process will be slow and gradual Kenji knows the value of even a few hours work, “Even with half a days work with people going there and working hands-on you can make a difference to a whole family which is something that gave me hope and inspiration for what can happen going forward” He vows that even as the media moves on the people of Ishinomaki cannot be forgotten and our support must continue, “People in the affected areas when they see smiling faces and people really exerting themselves that encourages them to go on. So I would say don’t think is it OK if I do this or that, do whatever you can.”

Having only arrived back in Tokyo on Saturday, 2nd April, Kenji returned to Ishinomaki city only a few days later on the 5th April.

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