Inspiring Hope

Sat amidst the constant buzzing of telephones and frenzied activity of the Peace Boat’s Tokyo office Arata Otake, 27, confesses she had some reservations about heading north to the earthquake and tsunami ravaged city of Ishinomaki. “I am not an outdoor camping kind of person.  I was worried before I went up that it would be mentally and physically tough for me to visit the disaster zone.”  As one of Peace Boat’s International Volunteer Coordinators, Arata was part of the first team on the ground in the Miyagi township, but instead of desolation what greeted her allayed her previous fears. “The mental strain I prepared for was much less burdensome because the people were so much more positive and vibrant than I could have imagined. It was hard to believe they were the ones suffering.”

Cars smashed through graveyards leaving their own monument to the deadly power of tsunami’s wave.

Despite the amazing positivity of the local people the scene itself left her breathless, “It looked similar to a battlefield, a site of war. Ships had been washed up onto the roads, cars left upside down on top of graveyards, the debris of houses everywhere. It didn’t look like Japan.” Houses first shook to their foundations by the earthquake were then devastated by the tsunami’s wave of destruction, “Some houses had completely collapsed, others were distorted and jolted out of position.  They were flooded up to the second floor windows, water rising up to the first floor ceilings.” Against this backdrop not all locals could remain so positive, “I saw one man sitting outside his completely wrecked house playing his guitar, everything was exposed or buried in what was left of his house. When I talked to him he didn’t have any emotion, he felt there was nothing he could do about his house, his life.”

A local man Arata encountered playing his guitar in front of his wrecked house, his earthly possessions strewn everywhere.

To distribute the supplies they brought with them Arata and her team set up daily pick up points “It was kind of like a bazaar or a flea market. People were grabbing the underwear, it would always run out first. There’s no electricity so they can’t wash, I guess they wanted to feel clean somehow.” Even in this desperate search for much needed supplies the positivity of people shone through, “They were smiling and joking, some of the girls got really excited and squealed over the luxury brand soap.” As other volunteers reported, demands were changing daily, “The roads were blocked so people had to divert around the worst areas making the journey from their home to a hot meal much longer, so now they require bicycles to transport themselves.”

Volunteers set up makeshift markets to distribute supplies.

Despite the valiant efforts of the Japanese government and the volunteers, Arata could see that not everyone could get the aid they vitally needed. “Those still living in their houses were not getting enough. The area affected is so vast that in general it is difficult for the government or NGOs to reach those in desperate need.” She hopes that Peace Boat’s efforts can fill that gap, “Some voices are not being heard but our aim is to listen to their voices and reflect those voices in our work.” Arata feels it is the older community that have been worst hit by the disaster, “Life is difficult especially for the elderly trying to clear their houses on their own without help, some don’t have the physical capacity to do it.” It is these pockets of isolated people that Arata believes the volunteers are best equipped to help, “The volunteers are invaluable in rebuilding life again. We can provide the basic tools to rebuild, and the assistance to do it.”

Providing hot food is another essential task for the volunteers, Arata explained that “Many people told me this was there first hot food since the earthquake.”

Back in the office Arata has been overwhelmed by offers of help, “I am getting hundreds of volunteers a day, my inbox is full of people from everywhere, USA, Australia, Canada, UK and so many other countries all wanting to  help.”  The offers have been flooding in not just from those foreigners based in Japan either, “Its been absolutely fantastic, people coming from outside Japan willing to  paying hundreds of dollars to fly here to help. People living in Egypt, France, I even remember Vietnamese and Thai volunteers desperate to help. It has really reaffirmed the importance of what we are doing.” Even in the face of such overpowering offers of help Arata knows more volunteers will be needed as the relief effort will long be a long struggle, “We want our support to be ongoing and long term.”

Despite her aversion to camping and outdoor life Arata and the other volunteers know the benefit and impact of being on the ground in Ishinomaki. “From here [Tokyo] we can get lost in what to believe but there I could see with my own eyes, sense the atmosphere, of more direct help and reaffirm that going there is essential.”

For more details on how to get involved see the Peace Boat website


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