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.
By Khaliunaa, volunteer from Mongolia
Even one simple person can make a difference, no matter how big or small as long as we have a common goal in mind. I strongly believe that together we can make the difference we all want to see.
Hi everyone. I am a graduate student majoring in International Peace and Study Program and working at Peace Boat office as summer intern. I had the opportunity to volunteer in Ishinomaki city as a Peace Boat intern.
My experience in Ishinomaki is unforgettable and one that will always stay present in my heart. If I could describe my experience in Ishinomaki in two ways it would be life-giving, and heart breaking. When I first arrived in Ishinomaki I was shocked and heart broken to see the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, and stacks of hundreds of crumpled cars and miles of rubble that used to be people’s homes.
This was originally posted on Alicia Sheridan Kidd’s blog here: Bite Cream and Bandages
I arrived in Japan three months after the tsunami, and knowing that Peace Boat was still sending volunteers to help in Ishinomaki, I signed up hoping that I could be of some use for a week. Having spent some time searching for information on the current situation in the north and finding nothing in the international press, I developed the naive notion that there was little left for the volunteers to do in this city which was one of the worst affected by the disaster. To say I was shocked when I arrived in Ishinomaki would be an understatement. Our bus drove past boats in the middle of roads, stacks of hundreds of crumpled cars and miles of rubble that used to be people’s homes. When we pulled up to the empty clothes factory that we were going to be calling home for the following week, I was still trying to absorb the amount of devastation which was far beyond what I had envisaged.
The clothing factory was completely bare of furniture, but it had been divided into sections with an area for cooking and an area for sleeping. The sleeping area was essentially just a large floor space covered in tatami mats with a huge tarpaulin separating the male and female sections. Although to begin with, sharing a sleeping space with 150 other volunteers wasn’t too appealing, after a hard day of physical labour I was able to sleep like a champion every night despite some of the world’s loudest snorers snoozing just a few metres away.
Pulling on a Peace Boat bib, I was introduced to the other eight people in my international team. I struggled intensley to remember everyone’s name on that first day, but spending a week with these eight incredible people, getting sweaty, muddy and emotional certainly forged some firm friendships. We soon got to know each other very well considering we’d wake up less that half a metre away from each other every morning, share cutlery and be able to smell each other’s feet at the end of every day.
“Let’s make a personal commitment and take action” – Euna Lim a Paraguay-Korean living in Japan tells her story of volunteering in IshinomakiPosted: August 8, 2011
This is the third in a series of reports by Peace Boat interns about their experiences volunteering in Ishinomaki.
The Japanese language version is also available online here.
I am a student of an American University and am taking the opportunity to intern in Japan over the summer. We had the opportunity to volunteer in Ishinomaki city as Peace Boat interns.
When I watched the news of the 3.11 disaster in Japan while in America, I really felt the extent of the devastation which nature and its elements can cause. However, the sight that I actually witnessed with my own eyes brought me to tears. What I felt as I saw the present situation in Ishinomaki, was stronger gratitude for my own life, my friends and family, and the everyday life that passes by.
Though I felt the limitations of the actions I could take during our short-term volunteer effort, I felt I was able to see the efforts the local people who are trying to rebuild their lives. Their action gave us volunteers strength and united our efforts towards the relief effort. The kind smiles and comments of gratitude we received from the local people made me really happy. Small efforts and small steps everyone takes together everyday become something the future can build on tomorrow.
There are many different perspectives and views, but I heard of one that claimed “The Japanese government has funds, but are not taking effective action. Therefore there is no need for the Japanese citizens to go and volunteer for the relief efforts.” All of us, including the people of the Japanese government, are citizens of Japan even before people are government officials. There are bad and good people, even within the government and of course in general. I feel that all of us should be working towards rebuilding and taking part in the recovery efforts of the 3.11 Tohoku disaster regardless of our differences.
In his 1961 Inaugural Address, United States President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you– ask what you can do for your country”. I was able to better understand the meaning of this wise quote through my experience in Ishinomaki.
Let’s make a personal commitment and take action!! – Euna
“ Listeners of today are the speaker of tomorrow” – Emi Mizuguchi tells her story of volunteering in IshinomakiPosted: August 3, 2011
This is the second in a series of reports by Peace Boat interns about their experiences volunteering in Ishinomaki.
The Japanese language version is also available online here.
Hello, my name is Emi Mizuguchi, working at Peace Boat office as an intern since March, 2011. I had a chance to volunteer in Ishinomaki city and visit Onagawa town as a short-term volunteer for the first time. Both areas were deeply affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Before going to the Tohoku region, I was wondering what I can do to contribute to the local people. After spending time in the devastated areas and communicating with people, I realized the importance of our visit.
These days news and television programs do not report as much as they used to on the disaster, however it is still a long road to recovery. Visiting the area changed how I live my daily life and I started to think more about the people living in the devastated area. I was also touched to hear that volunteers are providing emotional support to local people by just being there.
Walking around the town wearing the bib provided by Peace Boat, local people thanked me and approached me with kind words. Even though I had not provided them with anything, they still had a warm relationship with the Peace Boat Volunteers. I could see how Peace Boat had built a relationship with the locals and gained their trust.
Through the experience of visiting Ishinomaki and Onagawa, I realized the importance of standing together with the local people in the road to recovery and that the most important thing is to stand together with them till the end. I am in a part of a project called the “Orizuru Project,” which takes Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bomb) throughout the world to give testimonies of their story of survival. Through this experience, I reconfirmed the importance of spreading the testimonies. I was also reminded of a Hibakusha’s speech, “Listeners of today are the speaker of tomorrow.”
It was only few days working within these devastated areas, but they were very meaningful. Holding conversation with the local people and facing the situation on ground made me think about many things in life. From now on, I will be the “speaker” and would like to connect this experience to future activities.
This is the first in a series of reports by Peace Boat interns about their experiences volunteering in Ishinomaki.
The Japanese language version is also available online here.
Ishinomaki city of Miyagi prefecture was one of the hardest hit cities during the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. In Ishinomaki alone, the death toll is reported to be at 3, 151, with 890 people still missing. There are 2,855 evacuees accounted for, currently staying in 69 different evacuation centres.* From various estimates of the overall 3.11 death toll at over 15, 000 people, I calculate that at least one out of five casualties of 3.11 were citizens of Ishinomaki, and that Ishinomaki city lost almost 1/5 of its citizens. (updated August 5th 2011 by Peace Boat)
It was strongly suggested that the new interns, together with an office staff, volunteer and experience first-hand the situation was in Ishinomaki and see what was being accomplished there. I was personally concerned, thinking; to what extent of a difference I could make, as only one person and working for one weekend. Needless to say, I am glad that I went. Later, a Peace Boat staff stationed in Ishinomaki since mid March, he said that the local people see the volunteers and feel energized to move forward in recovery, – and also that if no volunteers came to show their support for Tohoku, it would mean in a way that people forgotten about them. While in reality, the media and the people are forgetting about the horrific tragedy, the survivors are still left with many unimaginable challenges for the long term. I then felt it was possible for me to make a difference by sharing what I saw and heard to as many people as possible.
Saturday – Cleaning efforts in Ishinomaki, and a walk to see ‘the division between heaven and hell’
On Saturday morning, Peace Boat staff organized over 130 volunteers who arrived at dawn to go over various rules, explaining how we fit in the overall volunteer efforts which were taking place. After the initial large group meeting, we dropped off our luggage at what was (and I am sure will be again) a well-established restaurant located in the local shopping area. They kindly offered two large rooms in their upper floor to house volunteers.