At the time of the disaster, I was in my second year of living in Japan and working as an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET programme at the time of the disaster. Being in Tottori, [on the Sea of Japan coast, some 800km southwest of Tokyo], I didn’t feel its direct impact. Nevertheless, I sensed that the events of March 11th, 2011 marked the nation’s collective consciousness, and I too felt a bond with the country that had become home. As a newcomer, I’d experienced the kindness and generosity of Japanese people on more occasions than I can recall. I wanted to lend a hand in the affected areas; do some small bit to contribute. I was able to find time after completing my teaching contract, as part of a return trip to Asia this winter, and joined the 49th dispatch from March 10th to 17th, 2012.
To my untrained and bleary eyes, things looked normal at first in Ishinomaki when the night bus from Tokyo pulled in to Kasuka [formerly a textiles factory and Peace Boat’s headquarters in Ishinomaki] at 5am on a drizzly Saturday morning.
It wasn’t until en route to our first work assignment that I was really able to get an idea of the devastation, almost exactly a year later. Our bus took us past massive mountains of debris – eerily orderly-looking from a distance, up close revealed to be piles of mangled metal, wrecked cars, and so on – an amount roughly equivalent to 27 years of landfill. We saw many houses with their first stories blown out. There weren’t any boats belly-up in the middle of the road, rather, a definite sense of empty space. A one-legged statue-of-liberty-lookalike presiding over the waterfront confirmed this impression.
Our first job was to clean up after a one-year anniversary memorial held the evening before. A flower design had been laid out by the waterfront, and lit with candles. It was viewed from the higher ground where the fortunate had manage to seek refuge when the big waves arrived. Feeling the symbolism behind the thousands of candles and admiring the pretty, quintessentially Japanese design, we sought to disassemble it with care.
We spent 3 of the next 4 days landscaping a park in the space dividing one of the city’s busy thoroughfares. This 1km-long section of the boulevard ran through Sakanamachi, literally ‘Fish Town,’ a name that took on a new meaning when the tsunami dumped the contents of nearby seafood warehousing facilities throughout the area. Urban beautification was a motivator for making this park. Efforts were being made to restore an area where cherry blossom trees once stood. The idea was to have some flowers blooming in that same space by summer, so local people could go for walks there. In preparation for the planting of seeds, scheduled for the following week, Peace Boat crews levelled the ground (removing remaining pieces of debris), spread fertilizer, turned over the soil, and created a rocky-gravel footpath that winded through the area. To do this we used wheelbarrows (or ‘neko’), shovels, rakes, and our hands.
We also traveled one day to the fishing hamlet of Samenoura, about 45 minutes away by bus. It was apparent that these outlying coastal parts were further behind in the recovery progress. At the time of our visit, the issue of whether to rebuild in low-lying areas was unresolved.
We spent the day collecting oyster shells that will be used in the harvesting of a delicacy and local specialty hoya, ‘sea pineapple.’ It will take a few years to regenerate the area’s main industry, we were told. There was cause for joy on the day we visited. Local fishermen had received a new boat (a gift from another part of Japan) and would be able to return to the water! Joined by their wives, they blessed the occasion with a traditional ceremony and invited us to momentarily put down our claw-like implements, (which, along with thick rubber gloves, were the tools of safe and speedy sifting) and catch some proffered mochi. Their smiles that day spoke a thousand words.
Although my interaction with the people of Ishinomaki was limited, I felt that they appreciate the presence of volunteers, even though the focus has shifted from recovery to reconstruction. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend the act of moving forward in the face of such loss and devastation. I hope that the continued presence of volunteers acts as a positive motivation for residents to complete this seemingly herculean task.
Going there put things in perspective. I had lived close to the sea in Japan so it wasn’t a huge leap to imagine this kind of calamity striking my town. It’s tough to reconcile a random event that caused such tragedy and complex consequences. Although volunteering in these circumstances was a physically and mentally intense experience, I found myself in autopilot mode. Knowing (or imagining) the hardships endured by affected people made things like bathing (which consisted of two sento visits that week), hot evening meals, and a roof over our heads seem like a lot. Doubtless, many volunteers return home with renewed appreciation for what they take for granted in daily life.
Going forward, I would like to encourage foreigners living in or travelling to Japan to volunteer if they have the time and disposition to do so. However, I recognize that this kind of participation may not be for everyone, so I also hope tourism to Japan and the Tohoku region is promoted. I want to dispel the myth that it’s not safe to visit a place like Ishinomaki.
It really took going there to gain an idea of the scope of this disaster. One example was seeing the ecological problems caused by seawater entering the rice paddies and vegetable fields, rendering them unusable for years.
I learned that in the days and weeks following the earthquake and tsunami, affected people sometimes said things like “We can’t accept help because there must be others worse off than us.” I suppose that says volumes about the Japanese character (and people of Tohoku are often said to be especially traditional in this sense). Still, I could see how this might surprise people from the West who are more individualistically-minded.
I was impressed by the number of long-term volunteers. Young people – if not in age, then certainly at heart – who were mostly Japanese, had spent weeks and months helping out. Their dedication was, and remains, inspiring.
Whenever a disaster happens I want to help the victims and affected communities as much as I can, but often it is not easy to be physically involved in recovery and rebuilding efforts. Living in Japan made it easier for me to get to Ishinomaki and volunteer.
I also wanted to help because although I live in Japan, Ehime is so far away from the affected area that sometimes it seems like a different country. I wanted to understand for myself how bad the scale of the disaster was.
I am glad I was able to help after the first anniversary of the disaster because now, as people in other countries begin to forget about the disaster, I can use my experience to educate them about the situation and hopefully generate continued support for the Tohoku region and communities in Ishinomaki. I have had the opportunity to talk with many of my junior and senior high school students in Ehime about the disaster.
I was surprised by the fact that some parts of Ishinomaki city were undamaged, while in other places there was literally nothing left. I felt shocked over the scale of the destruction to the buildings that are awaiting demolition. Sometimes I was amazed at how much has already been cleaned up. At other times I was struck by buildings that remain virtually untouched after a year, such as an apartment building near where we worked in Samenoura.
In many apartments in this building, things remained destroyed as they were on March 11. Tatami had been forced back and dragged forward by the power of the tsunami, while cell phone chargers, heaters and tv satellite dishes remained dangling off balconies. As a teacher, I was shocked, and saddened by the state of the schools. There was one junior high in particular that we drove past that had been badly damaged, but students continued to practice baseball outside. I thought Ishinomaki was beautiful. I think this is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Japan.
I spent three days in Samenoura – about a one hour drive from Ishinomaki city – helping
collect and string together oyster shells. We helped local fishermen who will put the shell strings into the ocean to harvest hoya. It will take another 4 years for the hoya to grow large enough to be harvested.
I spent one day in Ogatsu-cho helping to move stone into the town hall and cleaning up some of the fire station sheds. Ogatsu cho is famous for its hard slate which is used to make calligraphy inkwells and roof tiles. I think working there had a big impact on me because on our first night in Ishinomaki we were shown a DVD recording of the tsunami hitting the town. The film had been recorded from the roof of the town office, which we worked in. I think this place impacted me also because of all the debris that was still there. In the fire station sheds there was still mud and some water, as well as objects like tires and PET bottles stuck to the ceiling. And behind the sheds we found a car that had been washed there.
I helped make fields for 3 days in the Kitakami area, and the Mizuhama area which are rural communities in the outlying parts of the greater Ishinomaki area. These were the days when we had the most interaction with the locals. The farmers told us their stories of the disaster and we were welcomed into their temporary housing. One couple, the Sato’s, ate with us in the community rooms of their housing area. Mrs. Sato prepared some delicious wakame dishes and a coconut pudding.
I hope it has helped to restore the spirits of the local people a little and I hope they don’t feel like people are forgetting about them now that it has been over one year since the disaster. One day, we were told that some of the fishermen we worked with ate lunch with the volunteers for the first time that day. Before they would eat separately because they found it hard to accept help to do a job they had done all their lives. I hope that they do not feel bad about accepting the help and they can form strong relationships with volunteers.
I think some of the people we worked with wanted to tell us about their experiences so they had someone to talk to about it. I think it was an opportunity for them to be able to do this, and for us volunteers, to be able to hear first-hand accounts of the way the disaster affected the people of Ishinomaki.
For myself, I think the work has given me a greater appreciation for my friends, family and the fact that I have a home and a job. It has given me experiences that I can talk about with other people, to help generate continued support for the region.
After our work in Samenoura, we were invited to visit again four years from now, when the first season of the new hoya will be harvested. Although the work we did there was only minimal given the scale of rebuilding the fishermens’ business, it gave me a sense of accomplishment to know that we had helped them on their road to recovery. I would like to revisit here in four years.
We also experienced a magnitude five earthquake that went on for about 20 to 30 seconds, causing everyone to head for the door. As someone who has grown up in New Zealand, which is constantly at risk of various natural disasters, I was constantly told to ‘be prepared.’ But when disasters don’t affect us for a long time, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety. I think this experience taught me how important it is to always be prepared.
I was surprised that we spent a lot of time interacting one on one with people. I had thought we would work with bigger community groups. Another interesting aspect was that the people were so willing to invite us into their temporary housing. People were very generous even though they had lost everything. Japanese people are very generous so this isn’t surprising, so much as it is humbling. I think the range of emotions I felt during my time there surprised me. There were many happy times, and I made some amazing friends with other volunteers. But there were also times when I had to stop myself from breaking down, particularly at times when we had to work in sites that were people’s homes. This made the disaster so much more personal to me, but I knew I had to keep going for the people of Ishinomaki, as they are the ones who have suffered, not me as a volunteer.
I think the stories that the survivors told us will have a lasting impression on me. On our last day volunteering we were helping to make a field in Aikawa close to a ruined elementary school. The farmer we worked with told us that he wants to rebuild his house higher up on a hill so he can see the water and will know if another tsunami comes. In New Zealand sea views are a prized real estate feature, but his reason for wanting a sea view was very different to any I had heard before. This was one of many times in Ishinomaki when I realized what is really important in life – friends, family and community. The people of Ishinomaki we worked with were fishermen and farmers. They lived their lives simply, growing their own food and working as part of a community. I think I have learned a lot through their determination and the way they approach the mammoth task of rebuilding their lives.
I am surprised about how much work was done in the six months that I wasn’t in Ishinomaki. Some places were totally cleaned up and a lot of temporary shopping malls and restaurants are now properly built. It is always impressive to see how fast and efficiently Japanese people work. I believe I wouldn’t see that kind of progress in any other country.
But still, it is obvious that an enormous amount of work still needs to be done. Many places remain as they were a year ago and even in March we were still clearing sludge from houses.
I took on more of a leadership role this time but I do not think that being a leader impacts your work. Of course as a bilingual leader I had to translate but other than that we always worked as a team. Everyone was looking out for each other and taking care of each other.
Last September, when I visited Ishinomaki, I noticed that there was some kind of a turning point for the fishermen there. I was able to participate in a festival in Oginohama. Before this, many fishermen had given up hope and never wanted to work again. But at the festival we were told to come back next year and eat their fish. Now, I don’t feel much despair among the fishermen anymore. I am amazed by their strength and determination to get back to where they left off.
I talked to some people who lost their houses and workplaces but no one from their family. Even though everything they owned was washed away, every single person was grateful that they did not lose someone. They all seemed to be at peace with everything that has happened.
One thing that bothers me is that, in some areas, the government has not decided whether people will be able to rebuild their houses. It’s been over a year but some people still don’t know if they will be able to go back to their homes.
To be honest I don’t know what to expect or what I want to achieve when I next visit the area. I just hope I can make a difference for the people in Ishinomaki, even if it is just something small, and let them know that the world has not forgotten about them.
March 23-31, 2011
A lesson learned from the Great Kobe Earthquake and the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake was that if the volunteers are coordinated effectively, they can be more instrumental in helping those affected. The presence of volunteer leaders who can make appropriate decisions and coordinate Japanese and international volunteers are invaluable to relief effort operations.
Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center (PBV) has been running a “Disaster Relief Volunteer Leader Training Programme” since November, 2011. This programme aims to equip potential volunteer leaders with practical skills, which includes leadership, volunteer coordination, basic life saving, and safety checking skills that are required for emergency disaster relief operations. The programme goes for eight days in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where Peace Boat has been conducting disaster relief operations. more than 15,000 volunteers have participated in these operations since March 2011.
Fifteen participants including myself participated in the 10th dispatch of the Leader Training Programme. The age of the participants varied from people in their early twenties to those in the early forties, and about half were university students. From the self-introductions that were made at the orientation, it was clear that despite our different backgrounds, the common reason for participating in the Training Programme was that we all wanted to do something to support those affected by the devastating disaster, and to ensure we are better equipped for future disasters.
The first day concentrated on broadening our basic understanding of natural disasters, disaster relief mechanisms, volunteers, and leaders through lectures and discussions. It was particularly interesting to discuss how we defined these topics and the differences between our thoughts. It made us reevaluate the characteristics and values required for to be a good volunteer and leaders, which is a core theme of this programme.
On the second day, we had more lectures on practical topics such as injury and illness management, first aid training, and safety management. Then this was followed with an on-site safety inspection to one of the buildings partially damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. We also had a chance to practice first aid techniques using an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) on a dummy. I thought these practical training sessions were really useful because if I had only learned about these activities through lectures I am not sure that I would be confident in properly using an AED or performing first aid in emergency situations.
On the evening of the second day, the training programme suddenly shifted from passive to active participation where we were required to take initiative in making our own decisions – just like what would happen in real emergency situations.
We were given the imaginary task that we were being dispatched to disaster-stricken areas in the early stage of relief operations. Our mission was to provide 150 hot meals by 4 p.m. of the following day to disaster victims. This meant we were required to load trucks, create a central kitchen and establish an outdoor base camp with tents for sleeping in Ishinomaki. We were given the required equipment and had a brief lecture about how to set up tents. The way in which we wanted to complete our mission was up to our discretion. It took a long time for our team to reach a decision because we initially lacked knowledge, initiative and confidence.
Leaders were assigned to coordinate each task and we began carrying out mission. Ultimately, we ran overtime beyond the 4 p.m. deadline, but we managed to provide to finish our mission of providing 150 hot meals. We were exhausted. In our feedback session, we reviewed and evaluated the performance of each leader. I was one of the leaders, and while there was positive feedback about my performance, the discussion made it clear to me that there was room for improvement. Exchanging our opinions was extremely valuable. For this type of work it was essential that each leader had a clear vision on how to coordinate participants to operate efficiently in a safe manner. It really made all of us think about the characteristics and abilities that makes someone a good leader during disaster relief efforts.
From the fifth to the seventh day of our programme, the participants were split into two groups to help them observe and understand the role of volunteer leaders in Peace Boat’s disaster relief operations. One group was engaged with the provision of fishery support and the other group with the provision of temporary housing support. These are both central pillars to Peace Boat’s operations. By observing volunteer leaders coordinating hands-on relief operations, and attending the regular meetings of leaders and volunteers, we were able to gain an insight into challenges of being an effective leader and how it is possible to overcome challenges. The two groups had an exchange to discuss the different activities that we participated in, which was a great group presentation.
One of the most interesting and valuable parts of the training was a case study session. We discussed how we would act as a volunteer leader in certain situations during emergency relief operations. This session was particularly useful for me as I remember being in similar situations when I was a volunteer leader during relief efforts in March 2011, just two weeks after the disaster. At the time, I did not know what was expected from the leaders. I thought the case study scenarios could also be applied to help me improve in my daily work, which is to coordinate volunteers for Peace Boat.
The programme ended with an in-depth discussion on the difference between being a leader in general, and being a leader of volunteers for disaster relief work. Somehow, at the end of the programme, it was more difficult for me to reach a conclusion than it was at the beginning of the week. Maybe this was because I had encountered so many different opinions and ideas through discussions with my fellow participants. The more opinions I exchanged, the more confused I felt, but this was beneficial as it forced me to think in-depth about what I had experienced and develop my own ideas.
I would say this training programme was bigger than simply teaching people how to be volunteer leaders during times of disaster. I felt that this instead was an opportunity to learn more about myself. It helped me develop my interpersonal, communication, and coordination skills. Furthermore, it the practical element built my life saving, safety inspection and injury/illness management skills, which will be useful in my daily life. It was an amazing experience in which people from a wide range of backgrounds came together to form a team, and share a vast range of things including opinions, experiences, values and skills. It really made me think of how I should continue to develop myself as an individual, as well as a leader of volunteers during times of disaster. It was truly a stimulating experience.
For these reasons, I hope as many people as possible will be able to participate in this programme. The more people who join, the more people will be equipped with the skills required for disaster relief volunteer coordination, which will ultimately contribute to more effective relief work in the affected areas.
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 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?
With Silver week came another opportunity to volunteer with PeaceBoat for a weekend in Ishinomaki. Much like the July trip, we went up with the British Chamber of Commerce (BCCJ), slept on the bus two nights, and stayed at the same shelter.
It was nice returning to the city a third time. Each time the progress is more visible; each time the work becomes a little more positive. This time, we worked for two days clearing rubble from the shore, so that the residents could finally enjoy their beach again. A city bus driver took us from the shelter down to the coast.
The work day began with the morning taiso exercises as usual.
Much like hauling wheelbarrows of mud, this work took a lot of strength. The logs and pieces of debris were large at first. Working as a team, we passed the splintered wood and shattered plastic up the beach stairs in sections. At the top, everything was tossed over the edge into an endless trash pile.
So much rubble had built up in places, we had to be careful for our own safety. Once – trying to work quickly – I got too close to some other volunteers who were hauling a heavy log. When they swung it onto the pile, it came smashing back down onto my foot. Fortunately, I was only bruised. Other boards had many nails and broken bits of fiberglass. I was lucky.
Later on, as the larger items were cleared away, the work became a little less physically intense. Some of the volunteers and I went out to the edge of the shore, picking up small things from the sand. A million little plastic caps, medical items, poly-foam, pill bottles, children’s toys, and things that couldn’t even be identified filled our white burlap sacks. Some things we found made us sad, other things – we were simply baffled at how they could have even ended up there. With the sea roaring and the sun beating down, it was easy to get lost in the endless collection of it all. Looking up, we were surprised how far we had drifted from the group. Where had it all come from? What was the story here?
For lunch breaks, our bus driver was kind enough to have the bus waiting so we could escape the sun. Tying plastic bags to our boots, we stepped on the bus to enjoy our mid-day onigiris that were provided for the volunteers. The inside walls of the bus had become a museum of graffiti. Japanese and English messages scattered everywhere, we could see the short but detailed history of all the volunteers who had shared this ride for months before us. Some of them had been on teams to rid houses of dust mites, others – more cleaning crews. Many of the messages were positive words of hope for the locals, messages of encouragement, or else simply stating things how they were. The one message that stands out in our minds – as we rode and ate on that same bus for two days – scribbled across the back wall read, “No day…but today.”
The second day, we worked on the side of the beach that was half flooded; it was a bit messier work here, requiring more hauling. As we saw the beach finally looking like a beach again, we became frantic to finish and bask in the end product of our labor.
By the end of it, our boots were filling with the stagnant water and our gloves were drenched. Some of the volunteers had to go splash themselves in the ocean to clean off. The sun, lower in the sky, made out last glance at the sea worth it. Almost a beach again, we all hoped the locals could finally feel more comfortable wandering down to the shore. It was the least we could do to ease their long and painful journey, rebuilding their relationship with the sea again.
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.