Ishinomaki in June 2011 – Stephan Schmidt

Originally posted on Facebook by German volunteer based in Tokyo, Stephan Schmidt

Pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/39919624@N02/sets/72157626958145461/

After three months I return to Ishinomaki. Every day I followed the News about the relief work in Tohoku. Volunteers helping out, companies emphazising theire staff members to volunteer and a Japanese government try to help out with dragging eagerness.

The french community organizes every two weeks a weekend trip to Ishinomaki and offers volunteers a short-term period working in the affected areas. We stay in the Minato elementary school which still hosts over 250 evacuees. The school character has shifted towards a home for social disadvantaged groups. Up until now the temporary houses situation is insuffiecent. The residents mostly aged people wait, smoke, receive three warm meals a day and take everyday a bath in the ofuro (Japanese public bath) infront of the school building.

The entrances and windows are covered with close-meshed nets. Flys are everywhere. Copulating they sink down on my sleeping bag. They find the ideal environment. The schoolfloors smell is a mixture of stale food and self-pitti.

The feeling-well program for the evacuees is completed by a variety of cultural entertainments. It’s comfortable and an easy to obtain living. The people sharing one room becoming closer friends now. To live in a temporary house they need to pay rent or have some savings they could live off. Most of the residents can’t and won’t afford this kind of living. Another problem for the Ishinomaki commune.

Maruyama-san plays cello and is on tour through Tohoku. For two evenings he stops at Ishinomaki. What else can I do, he says, the people are happy about me playing for them. Accompanied by the piano he plays for two hours in the music classroom which is used by the volunteers as the resting spot for the night.

The same effort shows the Russian Community in Japan and came to Ishinomaki for a weekend. They brought toys for the children, food and russian folklore. Lech asks me why it seems that he sees more foreign volunteers arround then Japanese. I do not know the answer. The japanese people I spoke to explained me, they would love to volunteer but they do not get vacation or are afraid of loosing theire jobs. And so it won’t have enough volunteers until university ends for this semester.

Ishinomaki receives a lot of media attention. Alone four media teams have been to the Minato elementary school in one week. Constantly new gifts and commodity contributions reach to the Minato elementary school and therefore the evacuees. Onagawa or Ogatsu city are located 20 km north east of here and they draw a whole different picture. Malnourished evacuees, the sight still covered with heaps of debris and a major lack of future perspective. The natural hazard becomes a logistical challenge. Hindered by a hierarchical society struggle to accept aid from outside the national boundaries.

What remains are the private initatives. Like the one from the Association des Français du Japon. The group is attended also by Japanese, Russians and Mike from Naumburg/Germany. Finally I am able to talk to somebody in my mother language about the local situation. He concludes after the weekend: I am coming back… There is a lot to do for another five years. He likes to propose further initatives to his company.

Three more days to go after the weekend. The team is set up new under the leadership of Masumi-san. She coordinates the local enterpreneurs and privates who are asking for concrete help and deliver them with volunter teams. Masumi-san is the boss of Team Kobe. She lost her school in the Kobe earthquake and since then she takes care about the affected people at that time. She knows exactly the problems and sorrows of the people in Tohoku. Everything seems to repeat, she says but this time in another scale. The locals trust her as well as the allocated Peace Boat Team. And so we continue working with a catholic group from Himeji, Kohe-san from Osaka who acts as our team leader assisted by Chun-san from Kyoto. Nearly invisible but diligent Matajoshi-san from Okinawa completes the team. He will stay for another three months.

The tasks haven’t changed much since my last duty. Removing mud from peoples houses, pile up the washed ashore trash for the dustcarts and cleaning the drains. We are in the middle of the japanese rainy season. The mountains are greened but there is the thread of landslides caused by the tsunami and the daily heavy rain. Every day climbing workers try to brace the slope with cement. My clothes and my cloves hardly dry. On top comes the humidity. Day 5 brings the sun back and Cedric and me the first sun burn.

Slowly more and more digger and debris trucks appear in the city. Most of the inhabitants ask themselves: Shall we rebuild or pull down. Nobody knows if the financial help of the government will reach them and when. Better show self confidence and ask for volunteer help. Like Toiyama-san. All his life he constructed wooden troughs in a variety from a flower pot to a washing trough. With a circular saw he cuts in the ground in the first floor of his house and lifts the floorboards with a chisel. Quickly he crawls to the buildings foundation and removes the mud. Chun-san calls him to have a break. We only hear a muffeld giggeling from under the beams which assure us, he will continue after dusk. He is 87 years old.

The last day we clean the yard of a weaving mill. The small shrine is moved to the side and the washed ashore trash filled up in bags. Besides we remove old branches from the grapevine. The land lady wasn’t on her property when the tsunami hit. Four of her employees piled up tatami mats to reach the rooftop before the water filled up the workshop. They are all save. The workshop wasn’t affected by floating cars or trucks and so they work in full operation sine half a month. Cedric trys out his first woven planket and squeeze himself behind the weaving loom. We collect our tools and finish work earlier due the humid weather.

I do have a last duty on this journey. Together with Hiroki-san from Peaceboat we bike in town towards the Sumyoshi school. The Minato elementary school and other from the Tsunami affected institutions relocated their offices temporarily to this facility. We meet Sasaki-san the headteacher of different schools. His team receives 780,000.- YEN approxemately 6,800,- EURO. That is the amount, which was donated to the donation account of my parents from family members, friends, two elementary schools from Saxony and dedicated people from all over germany and the world. Thank you, very very much. From the bottom of my heart I like to thank you all. We never expected this huge willingness to give and therefore we feel more then obliged to use the amount in a meaningfull way. Sasaki-san and his team like to split the money for three school which have lost basically everything like the Minato elementary school. They like to buy projectors, screens, school tables and tool sets as well as a school vacuum cleaners. The new school year will start in fall. Untill then they new equipment will be installed and ready to use for pupils and teachers.

For the last time I use the public bath before I return to Tokyo by nightbus. It’s evening in Ishinomaki. The Isakayas around the main station are illuminated and laughters get through to the station forecourt. Two skater use the ramp to exercise. I withdraw a green tea from the vending machine. A shimmer of normality. At least in one commune in Tohoku.

Ishinomaki June 2011

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