Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Volunteering in Tohoku

When I first heard about the events of March 11th in Japan, I was in shock. This wasn't happening in my country but in one that I loved just as much. The sheer devastation and loss of human life was being transmitted to me from all directions - the news, YouTube, photos, iPhone apps, and friends who were being directly affected.

I wanted to do something even though I was far away, so with help, I was able to organize a bake sale fundraiser that was a big success on a small scale. When I learned that I would indeed be coming back to Japan via the JET Program, I knew that I eventually wanted to travel to Tohoku to see it all for myself.

Unfortunately, many of the volunteer trips either took place in the summer before I had arrived, or required too many days. I knew I could always make a trip for myself but I didn't just want to see it, I also wanted to help in some way. Just as I was about to give up until the spring, a post in one of the many JET affiliated Facebook groups gave me the perfect opportunity. An individual by the name of Naomi Murakami acts on her own to help the people of Tohoku. All the way from Hyogo Prefecture, she contacts groups and organizations on her own and offers to be of service. She enlists the help of others who are also interested and together, they put up their own time and money to plan different excursions and ways to volunteer.

On this occasion, we were introduced and the three of us traveled together to Sendai, Matsushima, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. We were only there for a total of two days, but I really felt like we accomplished what we set out to do and contributed, albeit in a small way, to the recovery efforts. 

We headed out early Saturday morning from Itami airport in Osaka and two hours later were in Sendai Airport. From the air, we could see how the coast was completely flattened, but once we got closer, we could see that it was a bed of trees that had been completely bent by the force of the tsunami. Upon seeing the distinguishable wavy architecture of the Sendai airport roof, I was immediately reminded of a YouTube video I saw that showed the airport being completely inundated and large aircraft carriers being swept away like toys. The interior though portrayed none of that as rebuilding modes of transportation were a top priority in the weeks following the disasters. 

We rented a car and met up with Naomi's friend, Reiko Kamisaka who is a copy writer in Natori city. She led us just outside the airport where the devastation was immediate. The airport and the immediate surrounding area were among the hardest hit in Sendai. The sheer emptiness of the place makes you almost feel like you're on a construction site, but instead of partially built homes, you see partially destroyed ones... Also, now that I am a teacher and because most Japanese schools look similar, seeing schools in the damage was especially difficult. 

From this point, we headed to a Natori City's important cultural property that dates back from the Edo Period of Japan (1603-1868). The couple that maintain's the building is a friend of Reiko's and so she offered to give us a private tour. The building is an amazing relic from a time long ago that was fortunately spared but not without some damage.

Although we went to Tohoku to volunteer, I was glad we had some extra time to see things like this in order to gain a full appreciation for where we were and how these areas were affected. Next though we did head out to where we were scheduled to volunteer; at the Sendai Shichigou Shimin Center, a kind of day care for kids. We were joined by another volunteer group who happened to be there the same day called Bouken Hiroba and Smile Japan. Many of these children were from nearby Shichigou Elementary School where we heard from the adults that many of them watched their friends be carried away by the tsunami. I say heard from the adults because the kids don't like to talk about it. Not that we were prying, but when they asked why we were there, we would explain. Trying to add to the conversation, they would make a comment about where their mom or dad was, but when we would ask about themselves, they would change the subject. Reminding them of that day was not what we were there for, so we proceeded to have a full day of playing games, eating snacks, singing songs, and giving them little presents. 

For me, the whole point of this trip was that even if the people we came across didn't put it into words, I hope that somehow they internalized the message that they're not alone. People from other parts of Japan, even us from the other side of world, want to see them recover they best they can and have a happy life.

A story that has stayed with me since I left, is that of this man pictured here in the red jacket. His name is Makoto Suzuki and he is a worker for Sendai City Hall. He lost his wife and his wife's family in the tragic events. He told us this over lunch which he insisted on treating us to. His work now is primarily trying to relocate people and re-appropriate the damaged areas. However, he is constantly met with opposition from the people themselves because they are reluctant to leave and want to rebuild instead. On the weekends he lends his time to doing this kind of volunteer work as well. Naomi commented that since she last saw him, the weight of his burdens seemed more apparent on this shoulders. If this is is true, I fear for this man in a different way that need not be said. He is in my thoughts, and we plan to send him a Christmas card to continue the 'cheering spirit' we brought there.

Pictured above are some Thanksgiving hand turkey cards I had my students make for these kids. Although both the givers and receivers where not entirely sure what a turkey was, my high school students enjoyed coloring for a change and these kids enjoyed laughing at the "creative" cards they saw. I mean, do these look like turkeys to you?! haha! At least they got the 'cheering' message across..

That night, we went to dinner by Sendai Station. While in search of a Starbucks in the station, I came across  a most fitting exhibition showcasing before-and-after and recovery effort pictures from the disasters. Although I couldn't read the descriptions, I knew enough kanji to figure out where and what was happening in the pictures. I had seen pictures like this on the internet before, but now that I had actually been to some of these places, it was even more shocking. From looking at these pictures I realized a couple of things that I hadn't realized before - the extent of the damage and the incredible progress. Some before pictures showed islands and inlets of the area that are just gone now - not damaged, but underwater. Also, I mentioned before how modes of transportation were the top priority to be repaired, but it was amazing to see the kind of efficiency with which this was carried out! The example below shows that in two days this mangled road was brand new.

The next day, we woke early to head the two hours north to Ishinomaki. Although the tsunami's damage spread across three prefectures and many towns, Ishinomaki experienced the most damage and loss of life. We set out to a temporary housing facility called Higashi Matsushima Hibiki Kasetsu Juutaku to make ourselves of use in any way possible. We arrived and after surveying the grounds briefly, we were asked to help move kotatsus (heated tables), blankets, and heaters from the storage room to the place where residents could pick them up for use. Afterwards, we went about cleaning the community center of the facilities since the people who work there are much too busy with other things. Another small volunteer group was there offering free facials and other spa-like treatments to the women tenants. I think little things like that help take people's minds off of their troubles and makes them feel good, even if only for a little while. We noticed on the map of the grounds that some houses were bigger than others. We figured these must be for families while smaller rooms are for couples or singles. Either way, the houses are not that big or allow for much privacy as they are paper thin. November is not the coldest month but we were already distributing the kotatsus and such because the temporary homes also do little to keep out the cold.

These people are the ones that lost everything. They are starting from scratch. Many have been asked to go live with family in other parts of the country if they can, but understandably, many don't want to leave their town or be a burden to their other family members. Most of these people used to work along the coast and their jobs are now too far away to commute to. They get meager stipends (¥40,000 or about $515 for three months) of relief from the government that are not reasonable at all to actually live on, just maybe to get by. Naomi explained to us that a lot of the donated money is still sitting with the charities that collected them as they are still finding the best way to distribute it evenly and use it most efficiently. Like I said, this disaster affected a very wide area. It is not as simple as giving it to one town or community. We're talking huge cities like Sendai down to small fishing villages like Minamisanriku. These are also some of the problems that Makoto is faced with. It is a daunting task, but these people need help if they are to move on with their lives.

Above are pictures of people work there (with the exception of the tenant who is picking up supplies). The older man in the green vest is affectionately called 'Otousan' (Dad) and we were essentially working with his group, Yappshi Tohoku, that day. The bottom picture shows Naomi with an older couple who decided to reopen their grocery store on the housing property for the convenience of the residents. Seeing that we were volunteering, they gave us figs and tea. They really didn't have to but it goes to show how generous these people are even with the little that they have.

From there we had some time before we were scheduled to go to anther day care, so we were told that we should see some of the coast nearby. We headed to areas that were once known for their beautiful beaches, but are now devastated. Very near to each other were two extreme examples of tsunami preparedness. In the area of Oku Matsushima, the story had always been known of the tsunami that came and wiped out the town many years before. Heeding the moral of this well-known story, the residents waited for no warning after the earthquake before heading to high ground. No one in this village died. Close by though, many villagers in a town were not so fortunate. Littered beaches, piles of rubble, over-turned houses, people taking refuge in caves, lasting faith, hope to rebuild, four-legged survivors...these were just some of the things we saw on the coast.

The day care we went to in the afternoon, Chibikko, had few kids since it was a Sunday afternoon, but that allowed for more one-on-one time with the kids to be able to have snacks and play UNO. These kids are a true example of resilience. Because they are children, I will not say their names, but they were laughing and smiling with us when only a few months before, each of them had lost a parent and/or grandparents. Two of them were students of Kadowaki Elementary School where a fire had broke out during the earthquake and was then flooded by the tsunami. Seven of the classmates perished and they were forced to spend the night in the school since the flood waters hadn't receded. Throughout the night they heard pleas of help from other victims outside that gradually went quiet. Like a friend of mine said, no child should have to go through something like this but at least their time with us was spent laughing and being a kid. After we left the day care we were going to head straight to the airport, but they had told us that their former elementary school was close by so we went to take a look for ourselves. It is completely surreal to think of the terror those kids felt and then to see the place where it actually took place. I saw a couple with their arms around each other walking around the school grounds. I couldn't help but think that maybe they were the parents of one of those lost children or had maybe known them.


As the sun set, we made our way back to Sendai to get on a plane and head back to our reality where neighborhoods are intact and people are not weighed down by the memories of these most horrific events. Even in the same country, it's easy to forget about these people who have suffered so much while we go on about our daily lives as they struggle to do the same. My time there is one that I will carry with me and already value greatly, but I hope sharing my experience sheds light on the current state of things and spreads awareness of the ongoing need for recovery. For more pictures not seen on this blog, click here.

頑張ばれ東北!がんばるぞニッポン!!Do you best Tohoku! Do your best Japan!!

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