A volunteer in Ishinomaki, (insert your name here)

We (a boy and a girl, a 30-something couple) knew we would have to go to Ishinomaki eventually. Three weeks of weighing the costs and benefits of what to do, translating nuclear reactor reports, collecting funds, trying to coordinate donation goods, trying to do anything more than just sitting paralyzed and feeling helpless, feeling controlled, feeling like we were being told how to think and feel from morning to evening by the endless news cycle, taking a step back and seriously contemplating what would most benefit those in the affected areas (Money? Goods? Manpower?), and frankly, basing our decision on what would benefit our own peace of mind…the final choice to go was one more of timing than anything else.

The primary (and personal) reason to volunteer, as I see it now, was really based on a need to face our own demons, a personal stake in helping out the worst off of those who were affected by the disaster, because in essence, it was akin to helping ourselves. Everyone in Japan, to a certain degree, has been a victim in this, whether physically, psychologically, or both. The decision to volunteer in Ishinomaki, then, was extremely cathartic. It was a clear step, it made sense (when lots of things didn’t), and it was mostly devoid of ulterior meaning (aside from maybe an implicit “F— you” to the nuclear plants). We were going to volunteer, because after all the talk back and forth about what we could do to help, they still needed volunteers on the ground in Tohoku.

They still do need volunteers. More now than ever, actually.

Oh yeah, and we had takoyaki (this is pivotal).

We left our kominka-house in the mountains of western Tokyo on the evening of March 15th, headed for Kobe on the Chuo expressway. In Kobe, we made contact with some fellow former-Peace Boat staff colleagues and laid out a game plan. After calling round to some friends in the field, we came to some easy conclusions: People in Tohoku needed food and clothes, but at that time, more than anything, they needed fuel for distribution of goods, for heat, and for cooking hot meals. So we looked to raise money to buy propane. This was something we could do, we thought easily. We didn’t anticipate that there would be no propane anywhere as far west as Okayama, or that half the city’s citizen’s groups would be out trying to collect money on the same streets for the same purpose—or that the “local politics” (read, Yamaguchi yakuza) might have a thing or two to say about outside groups collecting funds for relief efforts—but long story short, three of us gathered about 30000 yen in half a day. Even so, the pace was a bit too slow for our liking. We worked until evening with a group of Peace Boat volunteers in front of Osaka station, before attending a Hyogo Prefecture NPO Network meeting, getting more information about the situation on the ground, and reevaluating our strategy.

We knew that Second Harvest Japan, farmers groups, Peace Boat teams, etc. were driving 2-4 ton trucks full of supplies into the affected areas. First and foremost, they wanted to increase the capacity for making takidashi meals for larger groups of people (up to 500) in the evacuation centers. In order to facilitate distribution needs, we decided to focus on getting nabe-pots, utensils, cutting boards, and other takidashi-related goods.  So the next few days were spent driving between Kobe, Osaka and Shiga Prefecture to pick up what we could by car. A family friend donated 70kg of chocolate, a local bartender gave us two large nabe-pots, a nature school donated four stainless steel pots, camp-style knives, cutting boards, kettles, whatever they could spare. In this process, through a friend of a barber’s friend, we were offered a windfall: enough ingredients (flour mix, eggs, frozen octopus, red ginger and sauce) with all the equipment (grill, propane, uniforms and yatai-tent flag included) to make 8000 Takoyaki octopus balls.

Now we had a mission. And a timeline. The eggs had two weeks. The donating company had provided training in how to make the proper takoyaki-ball. No one else could take the propane (travel/vehicle restrictions). We were going to Tohoku to make takoyaki.

As it’s been said in other blog posts, there’s no real way to describe the field, but I can describe the people I worked with, the sense of purpose and passion they had while volunteering, and the real sense of community that is growing every day between both volunteers at the campsite and the locals we worked with.

We left the Peace Boat office at midnight by 4-ton truck and arrived at camp at 8:30am, right after morning calisthenics. After setting up tent and unloading our goods, we joined the Takidashi (food prep and distribution) team and proceeded to help make food for about 500 remaining meals.  The number of meals fluctuated from 800 to 1000+ a day…a lot of carrots and daikon to cut. Volunteers on the Takidashi team would joke around while expressing hopes and fears about the current situation, as well as trading ideas on how to better address local needs. The media was also prevalent, so there was added incentive to work efficiently while retaining a cheerful demeanor.


The Japan/international team – photo by Daniel Pierce

Mitsumata was probably the most devastated area I would see in Ishinomaki. It was also where the locals were most resilient. As we walked around the various neighborhoods, calling out today’s menu (“Chuuka-don”– Chinese-style rice bowl), locals would line up in twos and threes, taking off a half-hour from their own cleanup operations to trade the day’s stories, asking us where we were from and who they could thank for the meal. When takidashi supplies got low they would say they needed less, and anyway you must have other people in other neighborhoods to feed…We did. It struck me how people really wanted to tell us about what had happened to them, especially so, I think, because we were from outside the community. They had experienced the earthquake and tsunami together, but they needed an outsider’s perspective to release certain pent-up emotions to: here, the volunteers’ role became one that fit specific psychological needs, not unlike a therapy session. And it wasn’t a one-way street. Volunteers needed to hear these stories just as much as locals needed to tell them.

One man, maybe in his late 60s, came up to me and, speaking in English, began to detail what had happened in Mitsumata, how recovery might take years, but it would happen, and how they needed as much foreign support as possible. He left with a wink, telling us the food was delicious. Others asked us when the next supply of emergency goods would come. We took down their needs in memo (diapers, underwear, socks, etc.) and promised to pass it on to the relevant team. Before leaving, a line of locals waved goodbye to us, smiling, while holding their chuuka-don. One of them yelled out as we passed, “Next time, don’t forget the yakiniku-bbq and beer!”

Five members of ‘Megumi Japan’ (another NPO) would help us the next day to load a mountain of cardboard from deliveries (overflowing in the garbage area behind the evacuation center near camp) into the 4-ton truck. The disposal system was not yet up in Ishinomaki, so with some quick diplomacy between groups, we were able to move the cardboard into a camp storage tent. Three members of Megumi were artists and they proceeded to draw elaborate calligraphy-style signs on pieces of cardboard detailing where to place burnable and unburnable trash. It struck me that every volunteer brought their own set of skills to the table, and every skill-set could be used.

Clean up effort – photo by Daniel Pierce

At night, after an exhausting, but still invigorating, day’s work, there was a decidedly festive atmosphere in the camp area. Volunteers would trade stories of the days events, who they had met and what they had learned. A local, Tohoku-area ramen shop set up on-site and provided free ramen to volunteers in the parking lot. Another volunteer who had come up with his family would take groups of 10-15 volunteers by van to the local onsen every night, saying “It’s just common courtesy. Every volunteer should bathe at least once a week.” At the onsen , local obaachan (grandmas) were able to recognize volunteers immediately (I think we may have a particular sight/stench), and thanked us for our hard week, telling us to enjoy the healing waters.

On the Sunday, working with a Peace Boat international volunteer team, we cleared debris from Ai Plaza (a health center in downtown Ishinomaki). It took teamwork to move two crushed cars and a mountain of mud out of the parking lot. We had lunch on the roof of the center, overlooking town, the scenery dotted with cars on top of cars on top of trees… This was going to take a long time. And a lot more volunteers would be needed. But there was something about working up a sweat together and getting a meaningful job done that made it seem less like work than prerogative, something that had to get done, and would get done if volunteers were able to work as effectively with local teams as we had that day. The locals heated up some canned coffees for us over a small fire outside of the health center, then gave us a short tour around town, before we washed up at a Japan Foundation emergency water outlet and got a ride back to camp.

Not every day went off without a hitch. The change of the Peace Boat volunteer guard happened on Saturday morning, with fifty volunteers replaced by ninety new recruits. The Takidashi system required a slight learning curve, but somehow everything got in the right cars, headed for five different spots in town. The wind on this day was also pretty intense, enough to blow away a good third of the tents, so volunteer teams had to work together to put down emergency pegs. The local neighborhood takidashi line (served from the Peace Boat mess tent area), ran out of ramen and so had to make do with tonjiru soup. We tried to make up for it with more plentiful servings of rice/pickles and chocolate for the kids. People smiled and told us not to worry, that they appreciated whatever we had, and that they would be back tomorrow. There’s nothing like the promise of a repeat customer to give you the incentive to cut more carrots.

 Takoyaki – photo by Hazuki Yasuhara

On Monday, we were able to test out the takoyaki-octopus ball set. We served about 200 at the neighborhood takidashi line and had staff/volunteers test a few as well. Volunteers and locals eating takoyaki together, neighborhood children laughing as every volunteer from Osaka told us how we should cook them differently—this was why I had come to Ishinomaki. A Takoyaki-takidashi team was put together and was serving takoyaki in town the next day.

 ‘The team’ – photo by Julian Peters

On Tuesday, this time with another Peace Boat international team, we got to work putting up tents with three Italians and a Panamanian from the WFP (World Food Program). In order to beat the wind, they had been up since four in the morning laying canvas and tent frames at an SDF camp in Undou Koen Park, not far from the Peace Boat campground. Surrounded by SDF helicopters taking off with supplies, Fulvio, the leader of the Italians, told us we were putting up the largest storage tent ever built (two together actually, a combined 128 meters, I think). We put up canvas and worked with local builders to get up the frame for a second tent before the winds picked up again. By the end of the day, we had rhythm, teamwork and a smooth pace down.

 Tent Construction – photo by Julian Peters

Tent in use – photo by Julian Peters

The next day, our volunteer week was up. Exhaustion was kicking in to a certain extent, though we would have liked to stay longer. We caught a ride with one of the mud-shoveling groups into town and took a bus to Sendai from the Ishinomaki Fire Department (buses leave about once every hour). Arriving in Sendai and waiting for another bus bound for Tokyo, cones marked the large cracks and fissures in the sidewalk, the convenience stores still dark with empty aisles. We made it back into Tokyo proper around 8:30pm, ready to rest a bit, but also intent on making it back to Tohoku again when we are able.


2 Comments on “A volunteer in Ishinomaki, (insert your name here)”

  1. Fulvio Pirato says:

    Hi Julian, it is true! Greetings from Italy.
    It has been great pleasure to work with you.
    Thanks a lot!

  2. I was around when the tent was being put up.
    I was with the Clinical team,mud buster etc. We were there from March 27 to April 6th and my second trip was from April 26 to May 6th. The good news is that the tent you guys put up is being used and not another white elephant.The dome failed because no one wanted to listen to the engineers on hand because they were just volunteers.
    I will be there in a few weeks time again.

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