Volunteering in Japan
This is an account of two volunteer work trips I made to the region of Japan which was hit by the triple disaster of one of the powerful earthquakes in recorded history, a massive tsunami and as a result a major nuclear accident. When the earthquake hit on Friday March 11th at 2:46 PM I was in the staffroom with some other teachers basically waiting to get away for the weekend... because I am a foreigner I am less used to quakes so I noticed the room beginning to shake first. As the wobble got wider and wider public radio announcements came on the air and the TV was hurriedly switched on. We huddled together in real time watching the screen alternate maps with ever increasing red shorelines denoting tsunami disaster warning and horrifying real time picture of buildings being destroyed and people being swept away by the relentless wave which grew to up to 20 meters in some places. We watched powerful ships sailing backwards into the cities where they mingled with floating cars on the streets of cities and towns. Only later did we see the dreaded `garecki` or `rubble` which was all that was left of communities, houses, shops and industries in what was considered one of the most beautiful and romantic parts of Japan centered around Sendai city.
Japan was to become one of the biggest recipients of donor aid this year and rescue volunteers streamed in from all over the country and all over the world. But the truth remains the sheer scale of the disaster and the logistical problems it entails remains bewildering and difficult to resolve. The nuclear accident retained the worlds attention because of its implications for global energy problem but the miserable lives of the tens of thousands of bereaved and suffering is no longer truly newsworthy in the conventional sense. In today`s Guardian one can find a `Japan Story,` about how old people who are suffering serious stress get relief from a robot pet. It`s not about what needs to be done and why, it`s about robots.
Here then are two separate accounts of me volunteering to work, do anything, I don`t care, in the disaster zone. People often say to me `Wow, I am Japanese but I am not going,` in a sort of guilty way. Others simply ask `Why are you doing this?` The answer for me is simple. Every human being is put on this planet to help others as far as their own situation allows. If you are a teacher with a family in a Japanese school then your duty is one of education, compassion and long distance charity where ever possible. My circumstances and responsibilities are in a sense much less so my duty to help is different. Neither one is more significant than the other.
The writing below is hasty, error strewn and often inelegant. In both cases it was written the day after returning from the zone. It was written from the heart, a heavy heart indeed, and I cannot find any will to change what I needed to write so quickly as a catharsis. As such, please forgive its quality.
June 12, 2011
Volunteering with an NPO in Ishi No Maki.
`...you will need goggles, face mask, helmet, protective insoles in long rubber boots with steel toe caps, first aid kit,....`
Mmm. Seems a bit over the top for chatting to old ladies and pouring them a glass or two of water, but better safe than sorry I suppose.
As the bus passes Sendai international airport on its ten hour run to INM (Ishinomakiaki) I am surprised by three things in quick succession. First the villages and towns we are passing seem to have a high percentage of blue roofs. Our leader explained that during the quake many tiles fell off and since people don`t have the time or resources to repair the damage, they simply put the now infamous `buruu purastic,` sheets on the house and weigh them down with rocks. Next I notice that the long sweeping expanses of rice fields were a rather odd brown color sporadically dotted with cars. I asked why the cars were not being removed. `What is the point?` I was asked in return. The earth is essentially dead, due to salt content, for the next two years or so, making basic food production impossible- A hidden and terrible aspect of the tsunami.
Finally we passed what I call `garecki mountains.` `Garecki,` basically means rubble, but for me it is a convenient term for for post-tsunami detritus which includes rubble, fridges, TVs , cars and the like. The mountains are a unique color and smell which have come to symbolize the whole disaster for me.
The first camp we pass is a huge JDF base, but there are no soldiers around. The next camp we see is around the university where the main NPOs are coordinated from. These are hard-core volunteers who camp there for longer periods, and we see groups of young people such as `the peace boat,` coming or going from work. Very serious, very organized. We are allocated work (did I mention very serious, very organized?) and our bus drives off.
I look out the window and recognize that we are in the exact spot that was on live TV as the tsunami smashed into the city. Media images becoming reality is spooky. The actual height of the tsunami is easily understood when one checks the watermarks on the side of buildings. One has to look up from the bus window to do this....
We pass though what I called `Hades version 1.` Think of any film with post-apocalypse scenery (Terminator, etc.) and you have got it. Buildings with the first floors washed away somehow leaving the second floors standing on stilts, shops and houses not only damaged beyond repair but without anything to tell us that this was once a popular bar or local stationary shop. We pass a house balanced on just one corner, intact and jammed in between two pumps of a gasoline stand, and then a car misshapen and battered beyond belief but still recognizable as a taxi. The bus drive stands up and shouts `Ganbare Sendai Taxi Drivers!` For some reason, it seemed the right thing to do. One of my colleagues said, 'Wow! They have cleared this up a lot since a month ago.` I asked what she meant, and she observed it was now possible to drive through fairly easily.
The roads suddenly deteriorate markedly, and we enter `Hades version 2.' There are no buildings, but thousands of grey foundation stones where people used to live, work and play. It`s all dirt-brown and stinks. The SDF soldiers are everywhere, working like hell, but clearly exhausted.
Finally, we arrive at our designated area and get a terse, no-nonsense set of directions from a coordinator. (Did I mention very serious, very organized?)
`You can`t see any building higher than two stories. Thus, if there is a major earthquake and tsunami, drop everything and run like hell in that direction. (I presume he was pointing away from the sea....) The possibility of injury in this work is very high. You may be cut but broken glass, have something fall on you, or break an ankle or wrist. If you are cleaning houses, don`t go in without an experienced volunteer, move around as little as possible and do exactly what you are told.`
The specific area we are allocated looked rather like Pompei. Houses still standing, except they are a dirty brown and covered with mud inside. I look up and see a telegraph pole sticking sideways out of the second floor wall of a house. Our group is doing drainage ditch digging. You know the drains that have to be cleaned by the neighbourhood once a month? These are completely blocked and have to be cleared because people are desperate to return to their homes. It is a major undertaking and is scheduled to be completed by the end of August.
When one sees firsthand that this one fundamental thing is just one of a million that needs to be done, yet it is an enormous project in its own right, one begins to understand the nature of what a disaster is.
What is in the ditches? Lots of rice from a local rice storage warehouse lies on top like billions of maggots. Then about three centimeters of brown soils, then thick, heavy black clay/mud that looks and smells like excrement. You know the adage? If it looks like a zebra it probably is. Quite a few recognizable stools in there.
Underneath that, the water makes the black excrement into a runny black goo, which covered everything and everybody as the day wore on. Masks are needed to protect us from dangerous bacteria, and we are warned not to touch our faces or eyes. There is very little in the way of washing facilities. Just a weak hosepipe 300 meters down the road. Okaaaaay. I can dig. I come from a nation of ditch diggers anyway.
What`s in the excrement? Our spades keep hitting boards, cups, pipes, exhaust pipes, vases, handbags and so on. They get tangled up and we have to step down into the goo and pull them out by hand. I am wearing industrial rubber gloves so am okay. I lend a couple of pairs to volunteers who only have white cotton work gloves. I pull out a tiny ornate perfume bottle with a beautiful picture painted on it. This seems to be the symbol of someone passing onto the next life and I place it carefully on the hood of a mangled mechanical excavator which is standing next to us.
Have a safe journey.
As the sun beats down on us, the stink become intolerable and then Yuko (our NPO organizer) turns up with 100 kilos of baking powder donated from her shop. We grab handfuls of it and chuck it all over the place because it cuts the smell down to a bearable level. It is quickly used up. The excrement is also full of huge shards of broken glass and other lethal items which we pull out gingerly. The black slime and mud is dumped in `mud bags` which are then dragged to the side of the road. Curiously, the men had to dig while the women held the bags and then tied and dragged them off. These mud bags are not waterproof and the black ooze quickly runs through them turning them black and they drip with stinking slime as you carry or drag them.
We take quick breaks and talk to other volunteer groups from all over Japan. I tell the guy next to me about the Sendai Philharmonic support group and he says he is a drinking buddy of the head of the SPO office. I pass on our best wishes and my regrets that we could not meet.
It`s an eight-hour non-stop day, and when it`s over, we have connected up the drains of one block of a large area. The sides of the roads are heaped with mountains of `mud bags ,` and that terrible smell follows us as we return to the base camp.
Our bus is delayed and the temperature has shot up, so I lie down on a concrete platform which has the only available shade to wait. Ooops. It`s someone`s house, shop. I knock and ask if we can sit here. `Of course,` the young mother says. She is there with here two children and has just put a sign on her door saying `we will be open in five days.` I ask what the shop is and she says without irony, `Beauty salon.` A few minutes later, she come out with thirty cartons of juice and buns. `I`m sorry the juice is not refrigerated. I don`t have electricity.`
A battered van pulls up with a screech and a young guy jumps out and starts counting us. Seems harmless. `Probably just wants to practice his counting.` I muse. Ten minutes later he is back with with a large pot of miso soup and polystyrene bowls which he presses on us.
`Eat more. Eat more. Please come up to our matsuri (festival) in August. It`s very good.`
I am sitting on the bus at two in the morning thinking what I learnt.
I see again the mud covered streets with their mountains of stinking `mud bags,` and broken dreams. Then there is the young woman with no electricity who is going to reopen her beauty parlor in the middle of it. The young man with his miso soup.
Courage, determination and generosity. I bet it`s one heck of a matsuri.
The Power of a Song
July 30, 2011
After a series of overnight bus journeys I finally arrived at our camp in Ishinomaki (one of the towns most badly damaged by the March earthquake/tsunami). I am with the Japanese team of the PeaceBoat NPO which also has a foreign volunteer group. I can see the Japanese members are puzzled to find a weird bearded foreigner in their section. Our hundred plus group splits into four man teams and I find I am going to spend the next eight days dependent on and supporting a thirty year old geisha, a nineteen year old university student and a forty year old salaryman. I am the token violinist...
As we assemble in our lines for the preliminary meeting we are all a bit puzzled to be asked to sing the following children's song from a rather old Japanese animation called `AnPanman.` (All you really have to know about him is that he is made of bread and he saved the world from famine by letting people eat him.)
That's right! Don't be afraid?It is for everybody's sake?All you need is courage and love, because we're all friend
What really makes your smile shine through??what kinds of things do you like to do??Ending when don't even have a clue?That kind of thing is no good!Your dreams are thing you musn't forget?And try not to let your tears spill down?And if you don't it'll be as if?You're flying wherever you goThat's right! Don't be afraid?It is for everybody's sake?All you need is courage and love, because we're all friends?An, an, anpanman?Such a kind, friendly hero?Go, fly! Up in the sky, protecting all our dreams
Anyway, we make a hash of the song and then are told that we will sing it together every morning because the camp is surrounded by temporary housing full of old people who are desperate and lonely. When they hear this song they are touched very deeply and able to remember happier times for just a few moments.
The hundred plus team is divided into three broad groups and I find myself in the `support the fishing industry ` section. Perhaps a little ironic for a vegetarian of thirty years, although I have no idea what the support will entail. We get on our minibuses and head up into the mountains on the steepest, winding roads you can imagine, only wide enough for one vehicle. They are cracked and broken with the sides collapsing down into sheer drops of hundreds of meters. This does not seem to faze the traffic coming in the opposite direction at high speed. We pass houses with `SOS we are starving` written in huge letter on the roofs.
To understand the effect of the disaster here on has to vizualize the geography. Almost flat coves at virtual sea level used to contain little fishing villages of a hundred or so houses. These are backed by really steep mountains covered in trees. The tsunami swept in unchecked and destroyed all the houses and ships killing on average about twenty residents who didn`t make it to the mountains. Up the slopes of the mountains are deposited thousands of tons of rubble and broken ships. After the disaster these hamlets were cut off for weeks until the Japanese army built gravel roads about one meter above sea level which we have to cross. Its very scary because massive aftershocks are still occurring on a daily basis and a new tsunami would be the end. During our work on a few occasions there was a big shock and we had to down tools and run for the mountains until the all clear was sounded. The work itself consists of three basic stages: clearing tons of rubble and machinery, digging out the drains and rebuilding/laying new oyster beds. Of our group two people suffered serious leg injuries during stage one. The oysters themselves are grown on the shells of large shellfish which are strung together and suspend on ropes in the bay. It is back breaking , mind numbing work to thread thousands of these shells onto wires then carry them to the ships to be laid out under the water. I chat with the head of the hamlet and he tells me we are the first volunteers to arrive to help since the disaster. He talks about his family and it takes me a moment to realize the wife and child he is speaking of so proudly both died in March.
I can`t quite get my head round things so I keep pestering people to explain exactly what we are doing. In the small picture it is like a miracle. Our four man team spent one day in 42 degree heat digging mud out of the foundations of a house. It took all day but it was done. From there the owners can try to rebuild and repair a little. 25 four man teams is 25 houses so we have done a lot of good but the scale of the damage and the number of villages is so vast I cannot see the big picture.
Finally I get it. All the displaced families, the old people living in temporary boxlike `homes` with no friends, the many thousands suffering massive bereavement basically need a small light to follow. At the end of the day, if they can see hundreds of people trying their hardest to rebuild and get things moving they take heart and have a tiny glimmer of hope for the future.
Like AnPan Man says
Ending when don't even have a clue?That kind of thing is no good!Your dreams are thing you musn't forget?And try not to let your tears spill down