Taka Nakahara – My Ishinomaki Experience

In January and March 2012, I spent a total of 4 weeks as a Peace Boat volunteer in Ishinomaki, North-East Japan, which was severely affected by the tsunami on March 11 2011. According to the Ishinomaki city official homepage, more than 3,000 people were killed and more than 500 are still missing and feared dead, in the city alone. According to National Police Agency of Japan, more than 15,000 people were killed and 3,000 people remain missing as a result of the disaster. One of the things I can do for the people who passed away and those that are still suffering because of the tsunami is to share what I have experienced, so that hopefully more and more people will know about the situation in Ishinomaki.

Economic reconstruction support activities

From January 6th to 14th, and March 2nd to 9th, I volunteered as a bilingual leader of international volunteers from the US, UK, New Zealand and Germany. Our main objective in these two weeks was to support economic reconstruction efforts by Ishinomaki people. This was done through attending to crops, making pendants and preparing equipment for oyster farming. (Regarding our activities in January, please see other articles by Amy Hartstein, Allan Cook and myself.)

By participating in these activities, I felt I have contributed, however slightly it may have been, to people affected by the tsunami, because I can easily imagine that they will use the crops, pendants, and oyster equipment in their business. Also, because our team was made up of international members, we showed the global support for the people of Ishinomaki. Perhaps one of the happiest things as a volunteer in Ishinomaki was hearing local people say to my team: “Where are you from? Oh, (Name of country)!? Thank you very much for coming from such a far place!!!” By hearing their conversation, I was very happy to feel that I could become a bridge between local people and international volunteers.

Leadership training program

From March 10th to 17th (except March 11th 2012, when Peace Boat suspended many activities in a sign of respect for the local people), I participated in a “leadership training program for disaster relief volunteers”. We, as Japanese, especially after the Great East Japan Earthquake, are always worried about the next catastrophic earthquake that may occur. It is impossible to prevent earthquakes and tsunami, but we can prepare so that we are able to mitigate the damage they cause. The training is an initiative introduced by Peace Boat aimed at reducing this damage.

Already more than 100 people have taken part in the training. A network of graduates was established they are discussing what they can do to improve preparations for future disaster. From April 2012, Peace Boat changed its schedule so that now the training is separated into two weekends (the first in Tokyo, the second in Ishinomaki) in order to attract more participants. Unfortunately participants are limited to Japanese speakers.

The participants of the 9th training program

The training comprised lectures about types of natural disasters, discussion about volunteers and leaders, first aid, and how to confirm safety of the activity area. There were also outside activities such as practical exercises about how to establish a base site and distribute food. People also accompanied volunteer leaders who were doing this work, so that participants could learn what a leader must do. An unofficial component of the training, which was in my opinion possibly the greatest part, was the long, enthusiastic and passionate discussion among trainee. I learned many things during the training, but my biggest lesson is that what is important to be a volunteer leader is basic communication skills, which are key to our daily lives.

Newsletter distribution team

From March 18th to 24th, as a member of a “newsletter distribution” team, I was visiting temporary housing units in the city with the Kizuna Shinbun (a weekly newsletter published by Peace Boat) in hand. It seems that the newsletter, which was in its 23rd edition as of March 18th 2012, is popular among the residents, with a variety of articles ranging from practical information (such as subsidies available for residents and tips for living in temporary housing units) to crossword puzzles. Also, by facilitating communication between volunteers and the residents, Peace Boat aims to prevent residents of temporary housing units from dying in solitude.

In the field of peace-building which I am hoping to make as my lifework, we mention frequently the concept of “Do No Harm” or “Do Minimum Harm”. It is the idea that while a person might be trying to do good things during a time of crisis, they will inevitably produce some negative impacts. Therefore, all organizations must do their best effort to minimize the harm done by their activities. I think any NGO working in the field of disaster relief also has to take this theory into consideration. Even though its motif is altruistic, doing the right thing is not enough; instead things must be done right.

Under the current context, it seems to me that the challenge for Peace Boat (and all other organizations working for people affected by the tsunami) is how to construct an exit strategy under the context of the “Do No Harm” theory. Peace Boat is changing its activities from April, so that it can adapt to the needs of Ishinomaki citizens who are becoming more self-sustaining. One of the major changes is to invite residents of temporary housing units to distribute the Kizuna Shinbun to help them build their community.

My experience on the final day of volunteering helped me realize the acute need to invite more local people to participate in Peace Boat’s program. I visited one housing unit where a group of us volunteers befriended four children whose ages ranged from four to 12 years old. Another NGO had organized the gathering of children. But it seemed to me that at least one of the children was hesitant to play with others. Was it because the child was so accustomed to playing with Peace Boat volunteers, and therefore did not make friends with other children? I hope this was not the case. Nevertheless, I understood why Peace Boat is changing its strategy in Ishinomaki. It is my hope that volunteers will not only play with local children, but also assist them to play with other local children! I believe this is the same as what Peace Boat is aiming for in its new form of engagement from April.

“Do not forget”

At the training program’s graduation ceremony, one of the lecturers told us one thing that was quite impressive to me: “Humans are animals that lose their memories. I am certain that someday I could forget about you. That’s why I’m saying let’s make our best effort to continue remembering each other and what you have learned in the program.” This is why I wrote this article, as I would like to do my best in trying not to forget.

One other thing that I would especially like to emphasize is that, among my friends, we have been discussing the idea of visiting Ishinomaki as a tourist. More and more people in Ishinomaki are starting to live without the support of volunteers, and therefore the need for volunteering is decreasing. So what about tourism? I simply love idea of tasting oysters and vegetables which came from my own volunteer work, and generating business in Ishinomaki is something that is in urgent need. So especially to those readers who are now in Japan, would you be interested in a visit to Ishinomaki as tourist?


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