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.