Amy Hartstein – Volunteering in January 2012

Amy Hartstein is a UC Davis graduate living in the mountains of Ehime, Japan, in her second year on the JET Program. She volunteered in Ishinomaki for one week in January of 2012.


I clearly remember our group leader e-mailing us hours before our bus left “Please pick up some body wipes before we leave tonight; they are having problems with the showers.” Turns out the pipes had frozen, and would stay that way. In the week we spent in Ishinomaki, we were only able to wash up twice at a public bath. On the other days we remained reeking of the day’s hard work, and our team bonded over both our shared smelliness and our commitment to a project of emotional importance.

I chose to go to Ishinomaki and volunteer because I wanted to give back to Japan. So many people have made me feel welcome here, and my town has made me a part of the community. My gratitude for all they have done to help me is part of the reason why I went. Most of all, though, I felt it was important to bear witness to the disaster, to understand the magnitude of what happened first-hand, and to share Japan’s grief.

I remember driving through downtown Ishinomaki that first morning, thinking it looked similar to any normal city. It wasn’t until we headed further towards the coast that we were confronted by a mangled bridge, mountains of rubble, and stretches of homes where only foundations still stood.

What struck me the most were the damaged, abandoned schools we drove past. As a teacher, it was too easy to compare schools in Ishinomaki to mine; match concrete buildings to the identical ones I teach in here in Ehime, filled with smiling faces I know, joyful children who beg me to play tag with them at recess, who do rock, paper, scissors to see who gets to hold my hand on the way to class. Heartbreaking because of the haunting similarities to my own schools.

 The above picture in particular was a shocking sight: a bus–something that belongs on the road– swept onto the roof of a two story building by water, of all the seemingly harmless things.

The majority of our team’s days in Ishinomaki were spent making vegetable fields for people living in temporary housing. We started our first field just hours after getting off the overnight bus, a bit groggy but excited to be of help.


Our team leader with the three-year-old grandson of the couple we made a field for

 The fields, once finished, would serve as a hobby for those displaced by the disaster. They would have a place to go, work to do: a reason to leave the often confining housing units. Though they could never replace the lifetime of gardens washed away, these fields serve as a way to rebuild a small part of their lives.


After finishing the field.

 In order to make a border for the new soil and fertilizer that filled the field, we would often salvage wood or stones from the area. One time in particular, I had climbed up a slight hill with the field owner, and we were trying to pick wooden beams from a pile of wreckage caught in trees on a ledge. At one point he turned to me and said “This rubble was my home.”

The sadness of loss in Ishinomaki could have easily been overwhelming. However, reflecting on interactions like that, what resonates the most is the sense of hope: the stubborn refusal to abandon Ishinomaki, the strength to pick through the pieces of their broken lives and start again.

A volunteer sorts endless scallop shells.

When we weren’t doing agricultural support, we worked on a long-term project to sort through a mountain of scallop shells. What from afar looked like snow was actually tens of thousands of shells that had been washed onto land from an oyster farm. The volunteers’ job was to pick through the knee-deep mix of shells, rubbish, and mud to separate out the whole shells that could be used again, and bag them up for the fishermen.

It was extremely difficult to see progress in this project; even after filling bags of shells, the area I worked in looked much the same. Unlike making fields, it wasn’t physically exhausting work, and the winter’s cold made it hard to stay motivated. Slowly, we learned to celebrate the small victories, and it was so exciting when we eventually reached the sidewalk!

We got encouragement from other volunteers, but especially from an old woman we were working with. Everyone called her “ばあちゃん,” essentially meaning “granny,” and she was the most cheerful, positive person I met while in Ishinomaki. She said that the disaster ultimately brought happiness into her life, because so many people have come to help. The kindness of others has sustained her through losing everything, and her optimism helped motivate us in return.

Scallop sorting: cold work but enthusiastic volunteers.

I initially hesitated to volunteer because I thought I would be a burden. I’d never volunteered before! What if I were completely useless? Now I realize that the most important part of volunteering is showing people that you care. The most meaningful work I did was talking to the people we were making the fields for during our breaks, listening to their stories and sharing the weight of their sorrow. Compassion and respect are much more useful than physical strength.

My time volunteering was an empowering experience. I left full of hope for Ishinomaki’s future, feeling connected to the city and certain that I would be back.

My junior high school students in Ehime; all eight of my schools gave me class time so I could tell every student (from kindergarten to 9th grade) about volunteering in Ishinomaki.

I’m very fortunate to have the chance to volunteer again from March 23-31st. I look forward to seeing the beginning of spring in Ishinomaki, and the new life and new hope that comes with it.


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