Philippe de Koning

Bearing witness to a whole nation attempting to pick itself up in the wake of the “triple disaster” largely shaped my year in Japan. Living in Hiroshima, I felt removed from most of the destruction experienced in Tohoku, but I developed a deep desire to give back to the country that has made my life so much richer. I thus decided to spend my last full week in Japan volunteering in Ishinomaki – the town with the highest death toll after the tsunami of March 11th.

I will never forget our first bus ride to the volunteering site, Onosaki, a subsection of Ishinomaki. I had done my utmost to brace myself for the destruction I was to witness, but nothing could prepare me for what I eventually saw. The sight of nothing but decrepit foundations of homes, entire villages that had sunk underwater, a bridge completely twisted like a pretzel; it was hard to imagine that life could ever thrive again in such a wasteland.

Through Peace Boat Emergency Relief, I had the fortune of becoming a “Bilingual Team Leader” for a group of five foreign volunteers, translating Japanese instructions into English and providing guidance in our activities. Our activities in the village of Onosaki largely consisted of clearing out the debris from front yards by the shore, sorting it into piles for recycling purposes, and, on occasion, helping local fishermen restore infrastructure needed for their work. In the end, my group, along with another, helped clear out 30-40 tons of debris, and it was truly rewarding to be able to see the difference we had been able to make in one week.

While our physical work was gratifying, the most memorable part of the experience was interacting with the locals. I was blown away by the generosity exhibited by the locals living in the communities we were helping; a couple who ran a bed-and-breakfast had rebuilt the restroom in their home just for the volunteers to use. The wife once sat down with us for lunch, and provided us with an emotional explanation of how the bonds that held her community together – the kizuna – had been shattered. All the homes were destroyed, and over half the residents died, including two young girls who lived next door; they had died when the rising waters submerged the local elementary school – a two-story structure that had appeared mostly intact – killing sixty-seven children. Having to translate her story to my group while holding back my tears was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

When I departed Japan after a week in Ishinomaki, I left with an unbreakable bond to the country. As little as I might have participated in the reconstruction of Tohoku, I have a stake in seeing my friends in Tohoku rebuild their lives. While it is daunting to think of how much needs to be done before a return to normalcy is possible, progress is achieved everyday, and I encourage anyone who reads this to do what they can to assist with the reconstruction.

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