Streets of Colour – Ishinomaki Volunteer Report

Mémé Madoka Watanabe
Language teacher with Peace Boat’s Global English and Espanol Training (GET) Programme


Why did you choose to volunteer?

I just wanted to do something, and fortunately I work for Peace Boat so I could get all the information straight away. I really wanted to be a part of the relief work in any way I could.  I wanted to be hands on, go up there. There are so many ways we can help. It’s important. I know it sounds a bit crude to say have this experience, but it is important.

What were your first impressions of Ishinomaki?

Apart from the random houses on top of cars and really distressing things like that, the streets were actually really clean, but that’s just on the surface. The more you stay the more you see.  I actually felt detached, like I had nothing to say. I didn’t really feel emotional. I was taking in a lot of stuff, seeing a lot of things, a lot of shocking things but the emotions didn’t really come out. I was surprised at how detached I felt, it was like one of the evacuees said, “At the beginning it felt like a nightmare, now reality is sinking in”, maybe that’s what I was feeling. When you look at everything it doesn’t feel real.

Then I went with these photographers to Ogatsu (a town 10km away from Ishinomaki), which was a town that was completely destroyed and that’s when the emotion just hit me. It was just devastating, that’s when I was really upset.  I had been holding my emotions, so surreal, I hadn’t felt stressed. In the evenings you are talking to your group having a laugh, in the day its physical, such hard work. You might find a kid’s pen buried in the mud, or all these different things but I didn’t feel any emotion. But on the last day when I saw Ogatsu it all came to a head, all the hard work, all the destruction, not a single house standing. It was just so sad.  To see Japan one of the most beautiful countries in the world with its cities so clean but then to see the opposite total chaos and destruction. That’s when I cried.


What was the condition of the local people?

Everyone was different. We met this amazing man, his building was totalled. He said “Before this was my fruit shop, now it is a juice shop. It was amazing he could make a joke about it. But he said “You have to laugh, laugh, walk, walk, laugh, laugh, walk walk, to move forward. It’s taught me how important it is to do good things. Just as we eat three meals a day we should think of three good things.” Isn’t that amazing, he was just a random man in the street. He said good things are coming back to him. I just thought he was really amazing.

Then again you go to the evacuation centres and I didn’t feel I had the right to talk to them, I just wanted to wait until they talked to me. I would just catch their eye and smile. Some people randomly open up but some just don’t want to talk.

What was the main focus of your work?

On our first day we were taking mud out of a kimono shop, the water mark was two metres high; the place was just full of stuff, kimonos and obis. We were then part of the Smile project which is clearing the streets. We were literally taking the mud out of every cobble.  The street was changing from a whole street of mud then suddenly you had colour, the reds and blues of the Ishinomaki drain covers. You were scrubbing and scrubbing then the water came over it and it was just colour. It felt like cleaning my soul, the earth, a cleansing process more than just washing the body; a deeper cleansing than that. It was hard work, scraping with a crow bar and scrubbing for hours and hours and hours but my team did that for the next four days.

There is this one story about Rodrigo, one of the Mexican volunteers. He was cleaning the streets wondering why he was doing this job, which sometimes you do you know it’s so repetitive. On the fourth day of doing it this local Japanese kid came up and started helping clean the street. He thanked everyone for cleaning the street and seemed to be enjoying helping. Rodrigo asked him have you ever met a Mexican before? And the boy said he had never met a foreigner before. Then Rodrigo realised why he was doing this job. He said could imagine the impact he had on that nine year old boy; I am the first foreigner he has met.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the local people of Ishinomaki now?

I really don’t know, I can’t answer that question. After seeing Ogatsu, it’s beyond my scope, there are no words. It’s just huge, I don’t know.  I know organisations are talking directly to the local people to see what they really need. I think the best thing volunteers can do is trust what their organizations are doing and do it positively with energy. We all have this amazing passion to help; the whole incident is such proof that it’s our human nature to want to help. We can see that in everyone, the passion all over the world to help.

How do you think this experience has affected you?

It has made me realise that like everyone else when there’s a problem you just want to fix it, but you can’t just fix this problem. Realising this is going to be a process, there are different levels. I know I knew on one level this was going to take months and months but to actually realise it on another level. I had to just keep telling myself for the whole first day back ‘Mémé, this going to be a process’ over and over.  It is going to be one step at a time.

I learnt how much I admire Japanese people, because as a Japanese person growing up abroad I had a lot of resistance about Japan. Now I just have so much admiration for Japanese people, for Peace Boat, for all the people working to help, just for people in general. I am seeing people in a whole different way. I have always liked to see the positive in every person, but this is more than that. I am just really proud and happy to be in Japan.

They are saying this is the biggest thing to happen to Japan since the war but I think Japan will pick itself up. I think people are motivated and have a lot of energy. It might take a while but Japan will pick itself up.

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One Comment on “Streets of Colour – Ishinomaki Volunteer Report”

  1. Charlotte Blount says:

    ‘Thank you for sharing. My daughter is now is Ishinomaki working with the relief effort. She will be there until the 10th. She is working with WFWP and the Red Cross. This is her first time. Her brother is married to a beautiful Japanese girl and they live in Toyoko. He has been there for two years now.


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