Volunteering in Ishinomaki

A report from volunteer Daniel Pierce, originally published on JPNLND, http://daniel-and-emma.tumblr.com/


After many orientations and meeting our new team of international volunteers, we finally heaved our bags onto our shoulders and walked to the bus that would take us to Ishinomaki, the hardest hit citiy in the March 11 disaster. I say hardest hit because they lost the most people and have the largest amount of missing. Over 2,500 dead and over 4,600 still missing to be exact.

Hours before, 14 foreigners, complete strangers all, met amongst an army of friendly Japanese in the headquarters for Peace Boat, an international volunteer organization. We were put into two teams and to my surprise, I was the only American (not on the Peace Boat staff at least) in the bunch. The rest of the two groups were compromised of people from Australia, England, and even one from France who decided to take a detour on his 3 month back packing trip through Japan.

Before coming to Tokyo we were told to bring a tent, warm sleeping bag, and food and water for 1 week. I’m not going to lie. I stressed for hours on end trying to figure out what to take and not to take on what I knew would be a life changing experience. With some help from Emma, I bought some heavy duty mud boots, boxes of calorie mates (dry food bars) first aid kits, and fuel for my stove. Lugging my backpacking pack with a weeks worth of food, my tent and sleeping bag and clothes for a week was not a fun experience while navigating the Tokyo trains…

We left Tokyo at around 11pm on our overnight journey to Ishinomaki. We drove through Sendai and Fukushima and while drifting in and out of sleep I caught glances of the disaster from the bus window. Farm lands were flooded with sea water, as well as debris from nearby houses and even some upside down cars. Parking lots looked like a children’s play pen full of upturned cars and even semi trucks precariously resting on the edge of a river.

I turned on my ipod and managed to force myself to sleep the rest of the way, and in 8 hours we arrived.  Immediately after departing the bus, media cameras and boom mikes were pushed into our faces and we forced groggy smiles and made our way to the campground: the track field of Senshu University in Ishinomaki.


After we set up our tents and ate some light snacks, we explored our surroundings. There were army vehicles surrounding the perimeter as well as massive green tents that were the barracks for soldiers in the JSFD. The university’s gym was being used as a storage place for supplies and foods for the evacuees. I found out later that 200 evacuees were living in the university along with a few NGO groups.

We were all warned beforehand that the region was still hot with aftershocks, and it wasn’t until I was on the john that I experienced my first one in Ishinomaki. This was a Japanese “squatter” toilet mind you, and not the much nicer “throne” as we Americans like to call them. It wasn’t a large aftershock, and I couldn’t help but laugh inside as I considered my situation. That is until I realized the implications if a much larger one had struck. That thought sobered me up quick.

Our team leaders went to a meeting to find out our mission and came back with news I didn’t want to hear: we were to be stranded at the camp to pick up garbage and fill toilets with water. Apparently one of my team member’s had forgotten to buy mud boots and so had prevented us from what I really wanted to help with, “Mud Busting.”

I swallowed my pride at having to fill toilets while others got to help where it was really needed, and told myself that every little bit helps. The trash needed to be taken out and people needed toilets! I found myself quite busy that day as the winds were upwards of 60 kilos an hour. More than 10 tents had collapsed and our team had our hands full chasing many that had blown away and staking them back to the ground. I later decided to move my tent behind the tennis court fence where the wind was not blowing. I started a “revolution” as many, many more volunteers followed my lead and set up camp next to mine to shelter from the annoying wind. Our team jokingly referred to this for the rest of the week as “the cult of the fence.” The other international team had gone out to the affected area on the coveted “Mud Busting” mission. They came back dirty, tired, and with a sense of awe on their faces. I couldn’t help but have pride in them. That night was FREEZING. -7 to be exact, and I had to wear two pairs of thermal underwear and all my fleece layers inside my -0 sleeping bag under two blankets. I fell asleep, as I did every night that week and awoke every morning, to the sound of ambulance sirens. Sometimes so many that all the sounds blurred together into one long shriek.


I woke up at 6:30 after another -7 (19F) degree night. Our team ate breakfast and awaited orders from our leader who had gone to the meeting to find out our mission. Upon hearing that we would be going out for mud clearing, we scrambled around trying to assemble our waterproof/mudproof gear. A van picked us up and we silently, slowly made our way to the affected areas. I say slowly because traffic was snail paced as emergency vehicles and other volunteer groups made their way to the city. As we got closer to our destination, we began to realize just how bad the damage really was. Miles outside of the worst hit area, boats were resting against telephone poles. Debris and ruined tatami mats and furniture were stacked on the sides of the road forming foreboding mountains of memories lost, memories soaked in mud and oil. Cars looked like they had dropped from the sky, landing in such awkward positions as to look like some kind of perverse new age art piece. Through out this all however, the people on the street were going about their normal lives. Some even smiled and waved as we drove by. Others just set to their task of sorting through their ruined keepsakes, salvaging what they could, and what they couldn’t was added to the growing mountain of debris outside their house.

Still recovering from the shock of actually being in a disaster zone, we finally arrived at our destination: Ai Plaza, a community center in the center of Ishinomaki. The entire parking lot, as was most of the city, was covered in 6 inches of a thick mixture of mud, oil, and debris. Sludge is the best word for it. It is something you might see in the bottom of a sewer. Our team, along with several other teams set to work, filling tarp bags with the sludge and then hauling the bags to a nearby parking lot to slowly build a massive pyramid of sludge bags. At one point we even had to turn a car that was upside down upright, and then move it to a different location so we could finish clearing mud. I was overcome with sadness when I looked inside the demolished car. The windshield had blood embedded in the glass, and from the condition of the car, I doubt its driver survived whatever the car went through.

During our lunch break, one of my team members and I took a walk through the city to photograph the many boats in the street and the cars piled on one another like legos.

When we returned to the site, we were told that we had to clear the neighboring parking lot of mud and debris. Putting on our dust masks, and scarfing in one last calorie mate, we set to the grueling task and in the end had a clean albeit somewhat dusty parking lot and a mountain of mud bags. It was hard work, and took most of the day, but it was satisfying to see the face of the owner of the community center. His smile made all of it worth it and then some. We relaxed outside the community center in front of a makeshift campfire stove thingy, and we rejoiced when he brought out a bag full of canned coffees. He set the cans in a large tray of boiling water and we gulped down the lukewarm, but most welcomed liquid.

Halfway point



I slept like a baby after all that hard work, despite the freezing conditions. I woke up this morning refreshed and ready to tackle more mud. And mud we got. As we drove through the rubble strewn streets, I felt amazed at how fast the chaos and destruction began to sink in as common place. Someone on our team would point out the window at a boat resting on top of a pile of cars and nod as if it belonged there. Such was the damage in the city that any clean, untouched house or car looked strange…like it didn’t belong. Today we got to team up with the other international team to tackle a bar/house duo. We began the day by shoveling thick black sludge from the bar into the street where we then shoveled it into bags and added the heavy loads to the already huge pile on the side of the street. We finished fast, and I thought we were done, but I was wrong. The owner couple took a few of us through an alley entrance to a small corridor type enclosure and we all stood slack-jawed when we saw a car balanced on a stairway leading up to the house. For one, the corridor did not even seem large enough to hold a car, and two, how the car fell the way it did will forever remain a mystery.

We squeezed passed the car into a dark storage room filled with oily mud and toppled walk in freezers. One of them was literally face down in the mud, while another was leaning dangerously on the high beam of the ceiling. I have no doubt that if another large quake hits, it will probably topple like the other.

In the back of the storage room was an even smaller room that was completely covered from floor to ceiling with smashed shelves and wooden crates. A little old lady was feverishly grabbing what she could and throwing it into the larger room to be wheel-barrowed away. She had to be at least 60. When I walked in she started talking to me in Japanese, which I later found out was mostly gibberish, but I calmly smiled and nodded at everything she said. I took over along with a few other members of my team and we cleared the smaller room of debris in an hour or two. As we cleared it, we encountered our first casualty; a poor cat that had been trapped between a pole and the wall. I distinctly remember Lalo, a big Argentinian I had befriended, showing me the cat. He held it in his shovel, shook his head and in his accented English said,

“if a cat couldn’t escape from this…cat’s have nine lives, you know?”

I nodded and continued to shovel the foul smelling sludge. It made a sickening gurgling sound each time I lifted a pile from the ground. After another 45 minutes of shoveling, one of my team mates, a big, friendly Australian ran into the storage area to fetch me. “Daniel, we need you over at another site,” he said. I dropped the shovel and ran with him out of the dark room. The blast of sun light immediately gave me a headache. I had been in the dark for hours shoveling mud as the power was knocked out and my pupils were dilated.

I found out on the way, that Mike, the Australian, and Julian (from England) were helping an older couple in their cd shop. My new job was to sift through the knee high sludge to find undamaged cd’s and cassette tapes. How they plan to salvage the things, I have no idea, but I dug in and rescued as many as I could. The mud was so thick and black that it was hard to distinguish cd from debris. The poor guy had hundreds of records that were deemed unusable and he sadly told us to junk them with the rest of the mud and debris. We rescued what we could and then shoveled the rest of the mud out in wheelbarrows. The entire time, the wife of the owner had a smile on her face as she dug in the mud and she kept commenting on our “gaijin power!” Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. We cleared most of the mud and debris within our allotted time, and we all received hugs and many thanks before we walked to the cleaning station to get sprayed down by a power washer. I found out the hard way that my cheap, water-proof pants I had on over my jeans, weren’t so waterproof. It was a cold, but satisfying ride back to the camp. The sunset that night was beautiful, and god knows we needed to see something that wasn’t destroyed or covered in mud.


I awoke at 6:30, as usual, for a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and some calorie mates, and later our team leader came to tell us our orders. Today we were to go the Japanese Self Defense Force base and help some Italians from the W.F.P (World Food Program) set up massive tents to store supplies and food for evacuees. Our team grew to like them as the day wore on, and at the end of the day, they expressed how much they had enjoyed our hard work and dedication. So much so, as to say we were the best team they’d worked with in all the countries they had traveled to, which includes Libya, Haiti, and other disaster stricken areas. Apparently because of a lack of communication and heavy wind, the group before us had only managed to put up 3 of the tarps that compromised the whole tent. Our team, along with a crew of Japanese construction workers put on the rest of the tarps, and then set up the entire frame for the next tent, both of which were 64 feet long. To my dismay (because I wanted to help out by digging mud) they requested our team to come again the day after next. They had to go to Sendai the following day to set up more tents. We said our goodbyes, took some pictures, and then went back tocamp earlier than usual because our work had finished.

Once back at the camp we set about once again, fixing collapsed tents and retrieving others that had blown away in the pesky wind. We also helped unload supplies from trucks into the gymnasium. Two of my team members were craving some beer and so we set off on what turned out to be an hour and a half walk to the nearest store. We past 4 convenience stores that were either closed early or shut down completely. When we finally found an open grocery store, we bought our beer and then we took turns taking “showers” in the bathroom sink with shampoo we had bought in the store. It was too late to walk home so we flagged a taxi and made our way back to the camp.


Today after breakfast we found out we would be mud busting again. While waiting for our ride I managed to snap a few pictures with a Japanese guitarist who goes by the stage name “Sugizo.” He’s the guitarist for a very famous band here called X Japan. I youtube’d him later and found that he’s also a violinist of extraordinary skill. My students got a big kick out of the photos. Our group had seen him walking around camp and laughed as we joked about how this seemingly random volunteer was walking around like a “wannabe rocker” with his sunglasses and leather boots.

Our ride arrived later and we drove to downtown Ishinomaki wondering where we would work today. We drove down the main street in Ishinomaki and were dropped off by a nearby alley. As were most of the alleys, this one was covered in a mountain sized pile of debris higher than my head. This mountain was in front of the shop we were to clean that day. After taking a look inside, I realized it was, or had been, a pottery/ceramic/china shop. There was no electricity and little light from the windows, and what we saw was absolute chaos. A maelstrom of broken display cases, shelves and dishes covered the ground. Where the other site was a mixture of mud and oil, this one was covered in thick, glossy muck. I had a throbbing headache after just half an hour shoveling the stuff and I assume it was from the oil fumes. As the other members of my team were disposed with breaking everything with a sledge hammer to make it small enough to take outside, I found myself in what our team called the “pit of despair” (Princess Bride reference for those of you who don’t know)

This shop had a strange lower level (the pit) that you had to walk down 4 stairs to get to. We spent an hour clearing out debris before we could get into the black muck, but once we were in, we were literally knee deep. Most of the sludge had collected in this area and we had to stifle laughs as it made farting noises when we walked in it. My boots were almost pulled off my feet on a number of occasions. Large chunks of glass and recovery of valuable dishes made it slow going, but we made surprising progress considering what the shop had been through. We found out later that the other team finished what we could not, because of time constraints.

I talked with the owner and he told me he had run this business for over 40 years. He said people all the way from Kyoto, and even Kyushu hundreds of miles away would come to his shop to find collectable china and pottery. I recovered at least a hundred unbroken pieces in the mud and hoped it would be enough to recover a little of what he had lost. When the time came, we said our goodbyes and received many thanks and more hugs and walked to the cleaning station to get sprayed down once again.

I lightened these photos in Photoshop to show the extent of the damage.



The Pit, Before

The Pit, After

Me and Wade (the other Pit worker) with the owners

 DAY 6-Chaos

Today we were requested to go back to the army base to help the Italians finish the tents. It went much faster than the day before because we now knew what we were doing. We set to work even before the Italians finished their first coffee and cigarette break. By lunch we were half way done with the last tent. It was a beautiful day and we finished our lunch quickly so we could lay in the grass and soak up the sun. After lunch the Italians told us that apparently, the tent was shipped from Rome with a few of the parts missing. Essential ones at that. After they bickered and gestured for a bit, we shrugged and walked off to finish what we had started.

We finished what we could without the missing parts and left the Japanese construction workers to tinker with their bolts and screws, tie the last tarps down, etc. The Italians gestured for me and 3 of the other members of my team to come with them to the army barracks. There we had to unwrap and assemble a small, two-room office cubicle. It reminded me of an adult lego set complete with a set of tools and an instruction booklet. Two local junior high students who were volunteering to help out began putting together the chairs and file cabinets that came with the set, while the Italians had us assemble the office.

I had extra energy (perhaps from all the 15 minute coffee breaks) and in between all the lifting and screwing walls together, Mike (a 6ft something Australian and former boxer) and I would have play-fighting matches. He would take mock swings at me and I would duck, run on all fours around his back and kick him, then run away, still on all fours. During our week volunteering, I had earned the nickname “puppy” because of my apparent 2 minute attention span, “boundless energy,” and the fact that I would run over to the other teams tent if I smelled the feast they always seemed to be cooking. (Lalo, the big Argentinian is a cook in a Spanish restaurant, and calorie mates get old after a week) The way I “fought” brought cheers of “GO, PUPPY!” from the other teams mates.The Italians, particularly the scruffy hard faced one that looked like an ancient Sicilian pirate, got a kick out of it. Julian told me later that he would stop whatever he was doing and watch us with an amused grin on his face. That made me happy because he seemed stressed out most of the time, probably from traveling around Japan with little sleep putting up massive tents.

We finished the construction of the office and made our way back to camp. Our team leader told us we would go back to the base the next day to finish odds and ends with the tents, and then go back into Ishinomaki to shovel more mud.

The other team had gone on a 40 minute drive to find a ramen restaurant and an onsen to celebrate all of their mud busting (poor guys did mud digging every day of the week)

What took place next is perhaps the most surreal event that has ever happened to me in my life.

I went to bed around 8 and fell asleep quickly. I was in the middle of a dream, and awoke to a feeling I will never forget. It seemed as if a really pissed off giant grabbed a hold of the ground underneath my tent and tried to shake me violently out of my tent. I hit both sides of my tent wall before the shaking subsided. I lived in California for 10 years and Japan for 2 and had been in many earthquakes, but never like this one. I quickly unzipped my sleeping bag, stood halfway up and listened…it seemed that for a full minute there was absolute silence. The only sound I could hear was that of my blood pumping furiously in my ears.

Then all chaos broke loose.

A screaming siren began wailing in the night, more terrifying I think, even than the earthquake. A few seconds later a Japanese woman’s voice called to us in the darkness from an intercom. I think it was an emergency recording warning us of impending danger. The voice and the siren duo echoed in the darkness as if it bounced off a hundred unseen walls. I heard a hundred zippers from tents ripped open and people outside shouting.

Furiously, I struggled out of my sleeping bag as if it were a cocoon prison. My heart was beating a hundred miles a minute and I could think of only one thing…TSUNAMI. I ran with the others in the camp to the designated meeting place in only my fleece pajamas and a headlamp. There, after the sirens and intercom voices subsided, the camp director addressed us with a megaphone that we need not worry. We slowly walked back to our tents, muttering to ourselves of the rude awakening. It was 1 am. I was just about to get back inside my tent when a Japanese man ran breathless back to our tent and simply said “run!”

I looked at him questioningly at first, and he gestured wildly to the university which was being used as a shelter, “run!” he said again, “shelter!” And my heart yet again, was deprived of rest. It was beating even faster now than during the earthquake as I quickly crammed emergency supplies into a bag. All the while I was preparing myself to accept that I might lose my tent, sleeping bag, and all my camping supplies.

I found Julian who had apparently only had time to grab his camera bag (he’s a photographer) and together we ran through the darkness, catching glimpses of the chaos in our headlight beams. We frantically looked for the rest of our team and when we couldn’t find them we turned back around because we had remembered that the other team had gone to find a ramen restaurant. Their camp was deserted so we ran back the other way amidst the shouts and the sirens and got in line with the rest of the camp to get to the third floor of the university. It was utterly silent except for the few hushed voices exclaiming their excitement and fear. The university had the sanitary, newly-opened-latex glove smell of a hospital and I remembered that this place was being used as a shelter for 200 refugees.

Evacuation shelter

Everyone in the shelter had their emergency am/fm radios out. They were included in the Red Cross Emergency kits that each team received. The sound of static tsunami updates cut the silence in the eerie building as we all watched out the window for a tsunami to come and wash away our tents. I was restless so I walked around in the halls for a bit. My heart broke when I saw the children who were living in the building. As if they hadn’t endured enough, living in a university building and having their homes wiped from the face of the earth, they had to experience more of the earth’s tremors. They were silent and stoic, whereas in any other country I’d imagine there would be screaming and terror. I went back into the main hall and was quickly told to get behind the roped off area. When I asked why, a Japanese woman pointed up to the nearby wall and I saw there were cracks running all the way up to the ceiling. Several of the light fixtures looked as if they were going to come crashing down at the slightest tremor. At one point in the night a large projector screen crashed from it’s spot on the ceiling and caused several of us to jump, and a few let out shouts of surprise.

When the tsunami warning finally subsided, we were all told it was safe to back to our tents. We were offered a place on the floor inside the university in case we were too shaken up. I opted for my tent and made my way back with Julian to our campsite. While there was no tsunami, the entire campsite smelled of salty ocean water and dead fish. I’m assuming a lot of ocean water flooded the rivers around the camp.


I slept surprisingly well considering the circumstances and I awoke to thoughts of mud and the people in downtown Ishinomaki. Would all the mud and oil we had been shoveling be replaced with more?  Would all of the weakened buildings have survived? Unfortunately, we learned at the morning meeting that the streets were being reserved for rescue vehicles and the Self Defense forces and all volunteer activities had been canceled. I was able to procure a ride that day with one of the drivers that had been volunteering to shuffle as back and forth to the city. He was on his way down to Osaka and generously offered to drop us at Shinjuku in Tokyo. Most of the other volunteers would leave the next day, but I had already missed 2 days of work and couldn’t afford to miss more.

On the way down we had to make many detours because of damaged roads and earthquake damage. Even the road that wasn’t “damaged” was in poor shape and it seemed there were more bumps than flat ground. Some roads were even angled because of the shift in the earth. The entire way back all the way to Fukushima was riddled with debris and broken buildings. I was amazed at the extent of the damage. At least 6 hours out of the 8 it took to get to Tokyo were filled with ghastly images of gaping holes in buildings and glass covered streets. We stopped in a convenience store in Sendai and found almost nothing there. No bottled water, few drinks, and the only food they had was a few bags of chips and some bread.

We finally made it down to Tokyo and one my other team mates asked to be dropped off in Ginza, which screwed everything up. Our driver from Osaka was not familiar with Tokyo’s maze of streets and were stuck driving around in circles trying to find Shinjuku. I was appalled at the rudeness of the people in Ginza, an extremely well to do part of the city where all the shops are designer brands and the people wear nothing but. We had to stop at least 3 times and our driver, who was dirty and disheveled from a week of camping would get out of the car to ask people the way to Shinjuku. The first 6 people that passed him completely ignored his request for directions. They simply walked around him like he was a piece of trash on the sidewalk. Others would acknowledge he was standing there, but upon hearing a request coming from his mouth would simply wave him away and continue walking with their noses in the air. If they had only known what he had done for his people, how he was so generously giving us a ride before driving another 7 hours down to Osaka (a 15 hour trip in all)…

Perhaps I was emotionally stressed from what we had seen…or maybe shocked because we had gone straight from a disaster zone to a part of the city where the price of one designer jacket could pay for 2 weeks worth of food for an evacuee, but the way he was treated had my blood boiling.

We finally found our way to Shinjuku after getting some helpful directions from a salary man in Shibuya. (There was no way were going to get anything out of Ginza) Mike and I took out our wallets and offered gas money to our driver. He flat out refused and I tried to shove it in his hand. He said the fact that we are foreign and still volunteered for Japan’s cause was enough. We thanked him and wished him well on his 7 hour journey back to Osaka and then parted ways.


2 Comments on “Volunteering in Ishinomaki”

  1. Sriram SUBRAMANYAM says:


    I am happy to see that you could do something for the people of Shinomiyakai.

    I do hope i can join too very sooooon as I am in the process of attending their orientation maybe for the 30th April…

    Nagoya, Japan

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