It was a rewarding but exhausting experience – Tom O’Sullivan

Friends , Family, Acquaintances,

Just got back safely yesterday from nine days of volunteering activity in the one of the worst tsunami-hit Japanese towns, Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in the Tohoku area of Japan. I was with the Japanese NGO Peace Boat. I was part of a group of over 200 volunteers with 40 or so non-Japanese nationals.

Tom O'Sullivan in conversation with an Ishinomaki resident

Tom O'Sullivan in conversation with an Ishinomaki resident

It was a rewarding but exhausting experience. Parts of the town resembled photos of post World War II Europe, complete and utter devastation. The tsunami came in to the this fishing town three or four times on March 11th, 10m high, and ran up the two rivers that flow through the town at phenomenal speeds reducing everything in its path to complete rubble. Estimates are that 5,000 people perished in the town, and in one school alone, Okawa Elementary School, seventy children (out of 100), and 10 teachers (out of 13) lost their lives.

Our work involved cleaning up dead and rotting fish, cleaning the drains, and cleaning up individual’s homes. During our stay Peace Boat volunteers picked up 20 tons of rotting fish in the Ibarazu area adjacent to a medical facility, assisted in cleaning up 5,900m of drains, and cleaned up mud and debris from many homes. We camped outdoors in Senshu University at the edge of the center of the town.

Some of my team rose around 430am in the morning and cycled to the worst affected areas so we could witness first hand the trauma that people suffered and the level of devastation. Work started around 730am and finished around 5pm.

The view from the beautiful Hiyori-yama Park in the center of the town which was unaffected by the tsunami gave an incredibly graphic 180 degree view of the devastation of the Minato area and surrounding areas of Ishinomaki.

We were greeted with great generosity by the local people especially the elderly who have been worst hit and many are still staying in evacuation centers in very bad conditions. It was a very humbling experience to spend time with these Japanese people most of whom belong to fishing communities and who have suffered greatly but still show great fortitude and strength. The smiles and kind words that they greeted us with will live with me for many years to come. The people in rural Japan are incredibly generous and gracious. Among the many important  lessons I learnt was that many hands make light work, and don’t put too much store in your material possessions. In thirty minutes on that fateful day in Ishinomaki many of the residents adjacent to the shoreline and rivers lost all of their material possessions, and many of them their livelihoods. Visiting three destroyed schools was particularly moving as the clocks all stopped at 3.45pm on March 11th and the three schools we visited bore the full force of the Tsunami and were literally completely wrecked.

There was a great sense of solidarity among our team and a rainbow of nationalities participated.   US nationals were probably the majority in our international group showing the great generosity of that wonderful country. One of our group, Bruce Lawrence, a graduate of St Mary’s Intenational School in Tokyo in the 80s, and a US national, flew
all the way from New York to participate in the week’s activities.

Obviously, we just covered a very small part of the 400km of Japanese coastline that has been impacted by the tsunami and there is a great need for more volunteers so if your time permits I would urge you all to make an effort especially if you live in Japan.  If you cannot participate I urge you to encourage your family or friends especially
the young and strong to think about participating. It will take many years of effort for these areas to recover.  Estimates are that there are still 17,000 tons of fish on the streets in Ishinomaki and 170,000 tons on the streets in Miyagi Prefecture alone. As we head into the summer and much higher temperatures this may pose a serious health
risk to the local people.

Peace Boat contact details are here.

Take care,


Photos for this post by Draycat – see his site for more images from volunteering in the tsunami hit areas here.


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