“We are in it for the long haul” – Haru tells her story of volunteering in Ishinomaki

This is the first in a series of reports by Peace Boat interns about their experiences volunteering in Ishinomaki.

The Japanese language version is also available online here.


Ishinomaki city of Miyagi prefecture was one of the hardest hit cities during the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. In Ishinomaki alone, the death toll is reported to be at 3, 151, with 890 people still missing. There are 2,855 evacuees accounted for, currently staying in 69 different evacuation centres.* From various estimates of the overall 3.11 death toll at over 15, 000 people, I calculate that at least one out of five casualties of 3.11 were citizens of Ishinomaki, and that Ishinomaki city lost almost 1/5 of its citizens. (updated August 5th 2011 by Peace Boat)

It was strongly suggested that the new interns, together with an office staff, volunteer and experience first-hand the situation was in Ishinomaki and see what was being accomplished there. I was personally concerned, thinking; to what extent of a difference I could make, as only one person and working for one weekend. Needless to say, I am glad that I went. Later, a Peace Boat staff stationed in Ishinomaki since mid March, he said that the local people see the volunteers and feel energized to move forward in recovery, – and also that if no volunteers came to show their support for Tohoku, it would mean in a way that people forgotten about them. While in reality, the media and the people are forgetting about the horrific tragedy, the survivors are still left with many unimaginable challenges for the long term. I then felt it was possible for me to make a difference by sharing what I saw and heard to as many people as possible.

Saturday – Cleaning efforts in Ishinomaki, and a walk to see ‘the division between heaven and hell’

On Saturday morning, Peace Boat staff organized over 130 volunteers who arrived at dawn to go over various rules, explaining how we fit in the overall volunteer efforts which were taking place. After the initial large group meeting, we dropped off our luggage at what was (and I am sure will be again) a well-established restaurant located in the local shopping area. They kindly offered two large rooms in their upper floor to house volunteers.

Where we were stationed, the first floors of the area was flooded, and shop windows and doors could still be seen damaged. Some buildings were cleaned nicely and exposed for all to see, some doors were covered with wooden boards or plastic tarps, and a few houses were tilted and untouched.

The main roads were clean and cars were accessing the roads, but according to Peace Boat staff and local people, after the tsunami hit, the roads were completely inaccessible and full of rubble. I simply cannot imagine the work that went behind the cleaning efforts. While we drove into town, we passed by several mountains of metal and other waste. It was hard to think that those things were a part of a functioning town months ago.

The best way to describe the shopping district was like a ghost-town. A few stores I saw in my area which managed to open for a few hours during the day were two fruit/vegetable stores, two pottery stores, a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant, a store that sold clothes for only 100 yen, and a portable cooled 7-11 convenience store.

We had the opportunity to assist the cleaning of a local restaurant. We helped with cleaning store equipment which were salvaged from storage kept elsewhere, but everything that was in the store was swept away. Some of us cleaned the dirt and wood rubble that was stuck between buildings. The store owner was kind and kept thanking us and offering us snacks and cold beverages. The volunteer staff made sure we took many breaks, as the weather was hot and some of the work was physically straining.

At about 4pm, we cleaned up and parted with the store owner. Then, groups nearby gathered around a cleaning station where the Peace boat staff hosed down the dirty equipment and in a few cases, some people!

We saw many heartful signs around town thanking the volunteers, including a large banner at the cleaning station that said ‘To everyone who came from all over the country, Thank you!’. We also saw signs on shops thanking volunteers, and also letters that thanked foreign volunteers for staying to help Japan instead of leaving.

In Peace Boat’s headquarters in Ishinomaki, it warmed our hearts to see letters from the local children, thanking Peace Boat for the nutritious food cooked and delivered to them. Peace Boat found a building in town with a salvageable large kitchen on the first floor, and moved the operations office to its second floor. According to Peace Boat staff, the Self-Defense force was in charge of providing food rations, which was onigiri (rice ball) and a bento box. Peace Boat decided to prepare nutritious hot meals and deliver them to the local people, especially to those who had less access to food. Peace Boat has also gained the trust of the Japanese Self-Defense Force stationed there, and exchanges information with other groups active in the Ishinomaki relief efforts. Ishinomaki was the first place that Peace Boat arrived to assist – from the relationships they created and needs of the people, Peace Boat decided to station in Ishinomaki and focus its efforts there.

After changing out of our work outfit, we were invited to take a walk with two Peace Boat volunteer staff. They wanted us to see the parts of Ishinomaki that not many people get to see, and what even the Japanese media has forgotten about. After a short walk near the river with damaged houses – some with boats unnaturally sitting next to them-, what entered our sight was the areas where even the Self Defense Force and Volunteers groups cannot start to assist. The minimum activity done was the paving of the roads, and for as far as I could see, there it was flat land where houses and buildings used to stand, and heaps of rubble that did not belong where it lay.

Some locals took time to speak to us. One man, walking his dog, lived nearby and explained that even though he came from a row of houses which were lucky not to have been swept away, that most of his neighbours had lost several family members of relatives – and that there were so many funerals that it was not possible to attend all of them. The man looked at the large hill where some people ran to escape the tsunami and called the line between having something and losing everything was ‘the division between heaven and hell’.

Sunday – Trip to Onagawa and lessons from a local who lost much

The next day (Sunday), we took a tour around Ishinomaki and Onagawa guided by a local resident. Due to the earthquake, the land level dropped between 40 and 110 centimeters, so at certain times of the day the ocean water would slowly seep into town. He explained that one of the many plans to rebuild the residential areas was by raising the land level by 2 metres, and perhaps creating the shopping district in the areas near the water and using it was a protective buffer. Some areas were thought to be unusable. We drove to Onagawa, which is a town surrounded by Ishinomaki, and also severely affected by the tsunami. Many townships merged together to form Ishinomaki before the earthquake, however Onagawa did not join as their nuclear power plant created enough wealth to stay as their own town.

When we drove up a small hill, the sight that came into view was ‘how Japan looked like after the war’, and it continued endlessly. I understood why there were rumors that Onagawa town may merge with Ishinomaki city. Onagawa Town Office was destroyed and lost many employees.

For three days, there was no food and finally small amounts of food and water were given out in the days following the disaster. He was impressed at how his community, even in such a disaster, patiently gave priority to the elderly, pregnant, and the young.
Our local guide explained the general situation and then shared his story and stories he had heard. Luckily, his immediate family was safe, but he lost many relatives in this disaster. The tragedy was that many people who lived further inland did not take the tsunami warnings as seriously; this was the case of one of his relatives where the young children and parent decided to stay in the home and were swept away entirely. The other parent returned from a business trip to realize he lost his entire home and his family, with no bodies to bury, and realized that his family could have survived by going up the hill they literally lived next to. Our guide told us that earthquakes may at least leave him a broken house, but tsunamis take everything. He stopped beside an empty lot saying ‘This is my house’. I asked if he found anything that was his. He replied that he managed to find one album and one kimono pin that his wife used in their child’s marriage ceremony. Literally a few houses away was a small hill and on it are intact houses. Driving by, I heard the expression again, ‘This is the division between hell and heaven.’ ‘I am very envious’, he added quietly. We bowed as he apologized for being too personal in a choking voice.

I think my brain was trying to disconnect the reality I was seeing from my emotion to protect me, but I realized that this was actually a town where many people were born and spent their lives growing up, working…

Thanks and a call to support the Relief Effort

Through this unique experience, what I really felt was the good relations which the Peace Boat staff and volunteers created since mid-March. I write this extensive report in gratitude to the visible and invisible support we received, we were able represent Peace Boat on behalf of so many people who support the relief efforts but are not able to go.

I urge you to take action in any way you can. In addition to creating a relationship with the locals and various groups, Peace Boat is a NGO in existence for 28 years in a country where knowledge and support for NGOs is only noted in recent history. In rural Japan, forming true relationships and building foundations of trust is essential, and it seems it would be best for groups, companies and individuals to collaborate with organizations such as Peace Boat in order to create an efficient, safe relief efforts oriented to the people who really need it.

The number of volunteers willing to volunteer in northeast Japan has dwindled significantly especially after the holiday in early May – but the need for volunteers has not changed. Let’s take action to show that we want to make a difference in their lives today, and are in for the long haul as well.
*Using numbers updated August 4, 8AM from the city of Ishinomaki website:


2 Comments on ““We are in it for the long haul” – Haru tells her story of volunteering in Ishinomaki”

  1. […] 英語での現地レポートはコチラからご覧になれます。 カテゴリー: 参加者の声   パーマリンク ← 国際ボランティア学生協会(IVUSA)の宮崎 猛志さんのお話 […]

  2. Mackenzie says:

    Wow. Your story moved me to tears–thank you for sharing so beautifully! -Kenji

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