Emma Pierce – Volunteering in August 2011

July 16-18 we went up to volunteer in Ishinomaki again for the long weekend.  This trip was shorter, we didn’t have to camp, and the city had made a lot of visible progress in some areas.  In some ways this time was more moving than the last.  People are giving their lives another shot, facing the problems, surviving, opening up, existing.

Friday night we met our team; we went up with a group from the British Chamber of Commerce, an opportunity that arose from one of Daniel’s former volunteer friends.   We introduced ourselves and boarded a charter bus together for the overnight trip from Shinjuku. Tired from working all day and then the rush to Tokyo, I dozed off quickly.  The wavy Tohoku expressway woke me up with its bumps a few hours later.

After a rough night’s sleep, we arrived in Ishinomaki in time for morning taiso excercises, a quick breakfast, a not-so-quick meeting, and we were off with wheelbarrows, shovels, and sand-bags to our first site.

Our job for these two days of work was rather interesting.  Before us was a grassy lot with a small fragment of what must have been a stone enclosure. The tsunami had toppled a memorial site – like a graveyard, but with no remains – and covered it with mud.  Grass had grown over it.  In a few days, the neighborhood wanted to hold its annual festival at the site.  So, we had to be the archeologists.  We had to dig out and salvage what we could, dust-it-off and make it fit for the town to gather there again.

One of the men in charge of the site approached it and prayed.  Everyone was silent.  He then told us to prepare ourselves, both body and heart.  We would be digging in tsunami mud and it was uncertain what we would find.  Or what state it was in, I thought in recollection of the fish mission.

We went to work, and it wasn’t long before a not-so-fresh, familiar smell was released.  It was what we would later find out to be 4-month-fermented, soy cattle-feed, and it had an odor not too distant from how I remember the red sea bream.

We had to work carefully because the contents of what we were uncovering was delicate.  The local men in charge were reluctant to let us move quickly because they had a deep attachment with the place.  The memories of their ancestors rested here.  However, as our progress became more visible, they began to relax a little.  They seemed truly happy to see stones uncovered again, many still in decent shape.  By the second day, we were able to work more efficiently.  It was then we finally saw some visual progress of our efforts.

The mid-July heat and lack of shade made the work intense, so we had to take many breaks.  The locals were so kind that they often brought us cold drinks, and even ice cream on our last day.  During these breaks I was able to get to know my teammates better.  Even one of the local men working with us joined us at our break times.  He opened up to us a little.

On the second day, he told us his story.  His mother had died a few years before, and he was in his car with his father at the moment the tsunami came.  Their car was swept up in the waves with them inside it.  Miraculously, it hit something that stopped it, and they were able to wait unharmed for 3 hours before being rescued.   The man took out his cell phone and showed us the image of his car tipped up on end, lodged in the rubble.  What had stopped it was a grave stone.  Coincidentally, it was part of the very same site where his mother’s stone had stood…. He told us the kamisama, or the god(s) must have been looking out for him.

In the evenings after our work day, some interesting events were available for the volunteers to learn more about the area.  On the first day, we were able to take a bus to Onnagawa, a hard-hit area of the city, forever sunken below the sea.   Just before sunset, they allowed us to walk around the area for about 15 minutes and take in the scene.  Everything still stood in devastation, and yet the yellow-oranges of the sunset struck the sides of the ruined buildings, and the sea was astonishingly clear.  It reminded me of lyrics from a song I once heard…beauty and the mess.  After a few pictures and some heavy thinking, we had to go.  The tide covered the roads by a certain time in the evening, and it wasn’t safe to stay.

On the second evening, a local man came to the volunteer shelter to speak.  He delivered a loaded message.  I understood a little of his words at the time, and later a friend of mine translated.   He described scenes for us, difficult for him to re-live.   But he felt it was important to spread the message so that he never had to see those things happen ever again.  So the people of his city needed to follow the old concept passed-on from past centuries: save yourself.  There is an old saying, a traditional rule to adhere in the event of a tsunami, and it seems rather cold, but it is necessary.  Everyone must think only for themselves and just flee.  Drop everything and run; care not for those around you, trust that they will do the same.  As selfish as it seems, the man told us of the lives he saw wasted because people hesitated, didn’t take the warnings seriously, or went back for others.  Rules like this had been born as a way to preserve the society in the face of disaster, and he wished more people had paid attention.   He then went on to finish his speech by talking about the industry and livelihood of the shattered city.  For generations upon generations, Ishinomaki has always thrived from the fishing industry and the sea.  No matter what the sea could do to them, they would always take it back.  He would come to forgive the sea, and it would yield again for the people of the city. I am still astonished by the strength and courage of this man, and of all the affected people.


Even though it seemed we were only there for an instant,  I am happy I was able to go back and help again.  Staying in the shelter -with it’s lack of privacy and abundance of flies – helped me come to terms with how the survivors must have had to live for months.

Also, the volunteer work itself was interesting and enjoyable.  As we boarded the bus Sunday night for the overnight trip back to Tokyo, one of the men from our work site rushed on to bid us goodbye.  It was the man whose mother’s grave had saved him.  He had ridden a bicycle several blocks when he heard our bus was leaving.  He came aboard for a moment and shook each of our team member’s hands with a hearty arigato.  This is the reason I want to go back there again.

gan baru, Tohoku!

and they still need our help, too.


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