Picking up the pieces – Hanne Arnold

Hanne Arnold is a Danish journalist and academic living in Tokyo.  This blog entry was originally published on her blog, Zen, Sushi and Ghost Stories, at http://zensushighoststories.blogspot.com.  The following entry is from August 29, 2011.

Ishimori-san has been having a recurrent dream ever since the tsunami swept away his house and left his livelihood as a fisherman in shambles. In his dream there is an other earth where everything is exactly the way it was before March 11. Ishimori-san travels on a rocket to this other earth and begins to live his old life. Then he wakes up.

It’s been almost six months since the 9.0 earthquake and following tsunami left the region of Tohoku in Northeast Japan in ruins. Especially the tsunami did unfathomable damage to the coastal areas. In Ishinomaki, a city of 162,000, 3,157 people are confirmed dead and 849 are still missing. I’ve come up here with a group of volunteers for the organization Peace Boat. There are about 5-600 volunteers in the area at a time, and the various organisations work with the city authorities and the locals to help them on their own terms.

I’ve seen enough photos and videos (just google “Ishinomaki tsunami” and see for yourself) to know that the city has come a long, long way already. The streets are cleared of mud and debris, and the process of repair and rebuilding is well under way. There are cars on the streets, school kids on the pavement, a baseball team practising in their park. The city is not exactly buzzing with life, but it’s no ghost town either. Even all the way down by the waterfront, where more houses are missing than still standing (and only barely standing), there are brand new buildings shooting up in between the ruins. Family houses, a French-style bakery, a shiny 7-11 with stickers on the windows screaming “OPEN”.

A lot of work has been done, but still the destruction is overwhelming. The scale of it is hard to grasp. As we drive to our work sites in the morning – my team’s job is to help fishermen in the nearby villages – we’re constantly reminded of what happened here. We pass temporary shelters, mountains of rubble, houses in various states of ruin; some have only a few scrathes and watermarks, some are missing windows, doors, and all interior of the first floor, some have roofs that look like all the tiles have been thrown up in the air and let fall back down randomly. And some consist only of their foundations, with the occasional toilet or bathtub sticking up from a tiled floor. So many lives were destroyed here, so quickly.

As the bus bumps its way along the damaged roads, it strikes me how beautiful this area would be, the mountains framing the sea (Ishinomaki translates as “wrapped in stone”), if only it wasn’t so scarred. If only you didn’t see traces of the horror everywhere you look.

A speedboat pinched between two trees, way up on the hillside. Part of a small, white chair dangling from a branch. Splintered bamboo.

One of the ports we work at is Ishimori-san’s Sudachihama. The earthquake made the area sink about a meter which means that the port gets flooded with every high tide. The homeless boats are anchored off shore. The few remaining houses in the bay are in poor shape. There is a small playground by the water, reduced to bent metal and torn rope. I keep wondering whether there was a child on the swing that day.

My imagination is too vivid for this place.

Our main task is to clean gutters. We shovel sludge into bags that are used to fence off the water. Sludge and all sorts of things that have somehow ended up in the gutters; rocks, roof tiles, pipes, glass, porcelain, fishing equipment, bottles, cans, a leaking battery, clothes, a pearl necklace, a metal pencil case, CDs … Bag after bag full of pieces of broken homes.

Most of the fishermen of the area have left, given up, but some have stayed and are working hard to get their homes, their villages, and businesses, back on their feet. I admire these people enormously. They are not repressing or denying the horror they’ve experienced, but they are not despairing either. They are picking up their shovels, starting up their tractors and jovially bossing volunteers around. They feel grateful for being alive and they have faith in the future.

If people who have lost almost everything can laugh and make jokes, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad about actually having had a good time as a volunteer. It’s a strange thing, but in the midst of these heartbreaking surroundings you are also meeting wonderful people and you manage to have fun some of the time. Maybe it’s natural, maybe it’s neccessary, maybe it’s just the way it works. Despair leads nowhere, and even in the face of a disaster of this magnitude, people somehow manage to move on, and even smile. That is very reassuring. And it feels good to do something, even if it’s just getting stinky feet and sunburns while shoveling mud, and telling a proud fisherman showing you pictures that his son is very handsome indeed.

There is a story among the fishermen who have stayed in the area. Apparently there are abnormally many fish and oysters this year, and they say that the fish are feeding on the bodies of all the fishermen who drowned in the tsunami. Those who died have given their bodies to the sea, and their sacrifice will be the source of recovery.

On our last day in Sudachihama, while the tide is licking in over the sunk concrete of the port, Ishimori-san is thanking us and the rest of Peace Boat’s volunteers deeply. I need his words translated, but his face is easily read. He is very moved and very grateful. Gesturing at the ruins behind him with a smile and glowing eyes, he tells us that he will rebuild everything, even better than it was before, and he will do it within a year. He says that he can never repay us, but if we come back to Sudachihama next year, he will serve us the best oysters we’ve ever had. I want to believe him.


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.

Milo’s reports from Nihonmatsu City, Fukushima Prefecture, and Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

Milosav Grujicic, or Milo as he is known, is a cyclist from Serbia. He has a great and long-standing passion for Japan, and in November he came to volunteer with Peace Boat in the damaged city of Ishinomaki. He has written reports for each of the ten days he worked with Peace Boat, and these are all available on his website in English and Japanese. We hope you will enjoy reading about his experiences, and his plans to support Japan into the future.

To view Milo’s posts, please go to:

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.

My experience in Ishinomaki – Taka Nakahara

Article by Taka NAKAHARA

I visited Ishinomaki as a Peace Boat Volunteer on January 6th till 14th. My experience there was unforgettable, and I really recommend other people to come to Tohoku and volunteer with Peace Boat.

During our stay in Ishinomaki, I volunteered with one American and two British people in support of the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, March 11, 2011. On our way from Kasuka Fashion (former garment factory which was turned into one of Peace Boat volunteer facilities in Ishinomaki thanks to the generosity of the owner) to volunteer sites, we still witnessed severe aftermath of tsunami, even though nearly ten months had passed since March 11.

Peace Boat started its activity soon after the earthquake, and sent its first volunteers from late March 2011, weeks after the earthquake. Our group was Team 3 of the 40th volunteer group, which means Peace Boat had been sending its volunteers for 40 weeks. We worked with about 20 other volunteers, among them University students, veteran volunteers who had participated several times already, and very disciplined Urawa Gakuin baseball boys! (Congratulations for their being qualified for Senbatsu!!!)

Ten months after the earthquake, it seems to me that the need for volunteering has shifted from emergency support to reconstruction support. Request for food delivery and cleaning up activities decreased, but there still exists dire need for activities to support people in Tohoku so that they can re-start their work. Also, many victims of the earthquake are still living in temporary housing units, some of them alone, and under stress. Therefore, mental support for the evacuees should continue. Indeed, need for such volunteer work is perhaps more needed now than immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

During our stay, our team was assigned for three different tasks; crop field making, scalp shell collection, and pendant making (using pieces of Ogatsu stone, which is famous for its hardness). We did our work enthusiastically, but compared to what we have been given from the evacuees, our contribution seems to be very small. During tea break, and lunch time, they offered us so much food and drink that we felt sorry. Also, by talking to them, we learnt a lot. At least, by being there, we could have sent them message of solidarity – in our case, global solidarity – which we hope may cheer them up.

During our de-briefing session, with other volunteers, we discussed what we can potentially do after we leave Ishinomaki. One of Peace Boat’s long term volunteers emphasized that it is very important that we can continue our engagement with Ishinomaki, however that may be, so that our support for Ishinomaki will be sustainable. We came up with five suggestions: “Never forget”, “Buy ‘made in Tohoku’ products”, “Share our experience with our friends, using the internet or other means”, “Send our messages overseas”, and “Come back to Tohoku”. After our de-briefing ended, we took photos while some of us held boards on which we wrote the above five suggestions. I was holding a board which says “Come back to Tohoku”, because I thought this is something I can do for sure. And in order to fulfill the “pledge”, I am expecting to come back again to Ishinomaki in this March!

Allan Cook: How to Remember

The following is a report by Allan Cook documenting his experiences as a Peace Boat volunteer in January 2012.  Allan has also produced a number of iReports for CNN, which can be accessed using the links below:


Allan’s report:

I went to Ishinomaki with Peace Boat as a member of the 93rd group on January 6th-14th as the first group of the 2012.

On the first day of volunteering our group of foreign volunteers and our translator helped to remake a small farm that had been washed away by the tsunami.  First we cleared the ground of rocks and weeds before levelling it and making borders out of pieces of wood that we found scattered around.  We then spent the rest of the day mixing the soil and filling up the farm.

One of the most memorable part of the week was meeting the local people and getting to understand their situation.  Talking to them it was easy to understand how much the Ishinomaki meant to them.  For most it was their entire life!  They fish there, farm there and so for those that survived, the disaster pretty much destroyed the essence of their lives.  For that reason the support of NGOs like Peace Boat is all the more important. 

One of the most memorable things that I heard from one of the ladies who we had made a farm for was about her concern over the Fukushima nuclear Plant meltdown. “The tsunami destroyed everything but we can rebuild it.  But the disaster at Fukushima has polluted our land, so now we can’t sell our produce to make our livelihoods!” 

As the week came to a close and Peace Boats message that we must not forget what has happened here, and we must tell others so that they know too, and I looked at the destroyed city that would one day be rebuilt.  As I had been posting reports about the earthquake on CNNs iReport since 3/11 I wanted to add a few reports about my experiences with Peace Boat and to spread the word that recovery is still on-going and volunteers are still here. 

The first I posted was about the Urawa High School boys who were volunteering with Peace Boat; it was really amazing to see so many youngsters contributing so much. I also posted photos and a video called “Nature – Beauty and the Beast” which I really felt highlighted the cruel side of nature in the form of the tsunami, and the amazing side which was the beautiful natural scenery in Ishinomaki.  I also had a photo of a fisherman who caught and cooked-up an octopus for us, used online for Metropolis magazines “Photo of the Day”.

By the end of the week however, I felt perhaps those buildings could tell the most important message!   I could see the future where Ishinomaki is rebuilt and the buildings that were destroyed and the horrific memories that are connected with them are gone.  And I realised surely we should leave some of them just as they are to keep telling their story for decades to come!  Remaining as a warning not only to Ishinomaki and Tohoku but to the world as Hiroshima is a warning to the concerns regarding nuclear power.  Ishinomaki and many places throughout Tohoku are a symbol of the tragedy of tsunami. 

Every day that I volunteered in Ishinomaki I passed by the building with a bus atop the roof of its 3rd floor, carried their by the waves.  When Ishinomaki is rebuilt I can see no better way to warn future generations about the tsunami than to leave it as it is untouched.

Koga Saori – volunteering in Ishinomaki

I’m a staff member working at the Peace Boat office. I went to Ishinomaki on 29-30 August, taking a day off, to do volunteer work as a member of the 40th short volunteer group of Peace Boat.

For two days, our job was to clean around the graves in the SAIKOJI temple located at a distance 500 meters from the sea. They said these graves were under a lot of cars and collapsed houses and carried away by tsunami, just after 3.11. After removing them, they needed cleaning, by 9.23, the equinoctial week.

At first, we started to remove the debris covered with graves. Halfway, I found some things people always use everyday, for example, bags, shoes, photos, toys… I felt like crying. I realized the debris was never “debris”. A grave needed 5~6 members to clean, so we concentrated our job.

On the next day, when we arrived at the place where we worked, I saw an old man stand in front of the gravestone we cleaned yesterday. There were a few flowers before the grave. He closed his eyes tightly, joining his hands together before his heart. When I saw this situation, I realized some important things of our activity.

After work, we had a meeting to share our own impression, review, and feelings. In this time, we knew the volunteer’s thoughts, for example, why they wanted to come to Ishinomaki, how they felt through 3.11, what to do after this… I was so interested to listen to them, especially, some young Korean students who were living in Japan. Their words made a deep impression on me. They said “We are always helping each other, so now, when Japan is in a trouble, it’s time to act for Japan. There are some problems between Japan and Korea, but we wanted to be a bridge between the two countries”. Their words shocked me. This disaster happened in Japan, but its influence was never only on Japanese. This opportunity is be able to make good international relations. So, I think that we, especially Japanese, need to broaden our horizons, look to all over the world.