Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Volunteering in Tohoku - The Major Write-Up


Two things before we start. First, this is long — 1400+ words. I make no apologies for that. Second, let me paraphrase myself from the end: We do a good job in the first world of responding to crises, but the news spotlight moves on quickly. Six months may seem like a long time, but the healing in northern Japan is far from done. Support disaster relief efforts, wherever your heart may take you.

“I’m going up to Ishinomaki city in Tohoku to volunteer for a week.” I kept saying that the last few weeks leading up to my volunteer trip but, like with many things, I had no clue what it actually meant at the time. Not only was this my first time doing disaster relief volunteering, it was my first time doing so for an entire week, never mind being in Japan. Fortunately, despite some minor speed bumps along the way, the result has been fantastic: a true life-changing experience in many ways.

How did I get here? Six other JETs in Nagasaki prefecture organized the trip in accord with AJET, the national organization. We volunteered with Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO that spreads the message of international cooperation by traveling throughout the world on their cruise ship. They also have specialized in disaster relief, and have been helping coordinate efforts in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture since shortly after the March 11 disaster struck. Our group needed one more person, I pulled everything together last minute, and got prepared for the trip.

I took off from Nagasaki prefecture bright early on September 16th. Peace Boat trips meet in Tokyo, so the group of us caught various flights to the capital city and eventually met up at orientation in the late afternoon. After orientation and dinner, we met again in Shinjuku, near the Center Park, to embark on the night buses that would then take us up to Ishinomaki. Three bus loads of volunteers journeyed into the night - more than 90 volunteers going up for a week together.


I would apologize for the bizarre coloration of the picture, but it's my camera's fault, not mine!

It was about this time that I, frankly, got crabby. Tokyo was still hot, luggage is heavy, and buses are not ideal sleeping quarters. Rest was hard to come by. However, we eventually arrived at Ishinomaki Senshu University, where Peace Boat had a small tent village set up to house week-long volunteers. This was a little frustrating - we’re staying in tents?! That didn’t improve things much. After arriving and changing, we organized in groups and headed out for the first day of volunteer work.


My team was one of those slated to do beach cleanup. Since we got a late start to proceedings it was a short day, but good work - the beach we were cleaning was a major tourist spot and, importantly, we could tell conditions were improving at the end of the day. We collected trash on the beach, including larger logs, driftwood, etc. that had been sent everywhere during the tsunami. The mountain of garbage near the beach was a reminder of just how much work had been done already; the driftwood floating in showed how much was left. Other groups at our camp were involved in other ways - some helped move a boat that was still inland from the tsunami, others untangled nets and worked with salvaged fishing equipment. Peace Boat is there to help, but they coordinate every day with groups in the city to see what work is needed. It can be a bit exciting and “giri-giri” - last minute. After returning to camp I walked with other Nagasaki JETs out to the nearest convenience store; this would be a recurring theme. I don’t remember when I went to bed that night, but it was well-deserved rest.

On that first day, I didn’t bring a long-sleeve shirt or a hat to the beach; of course, I got sunburned. I packed accordingly for day two, Sunday, but halfway through the day I was out of gas. Since we work outdoors in the summer sun, Peace Boat leaders and our group leaders are worried about heat stroke and hydration. I think that was a part of it, but I was also drained emotionally - I’d been on the move since 5 am Friday, I was doing hard work in one of the cities hit hardest by the tsunami, and it was all a bit much. It was definitely a “what have I gotten myself into” moment. After taking time to rest and drink a ton of water, I worked more in the afternoon, and things got a bit better from there.


Our camp ground was out in the sports fields at the university, and as such we didn’t exactly have normal bathrooms. We had restrooms (which were like posh port-a-potties) but no showers. However! Volunteers there had the chance to go to a large local hot springs facility three times during the week. Success! Cleanliness! Nothing like a hot shower and hot springs bath to raise morale. The complex had the baths plus a restaurant, gift shop, open rooms, and a small market and convenience store attached - all the trappings of civilization. Perfect. After the trying afternoon, this was a welcome change.

Monday was fantastic, another day of working on the beach but with cooler temperatures and overcast skies. For this Portland boy, the weather felt just like home. It was also on the third day that communication and relationships started smoothing out a bit. My group had another JET from Nagasaki, two others from different prefectures in Japan, and a bi-lingual Japanese team leader - I was the only guy. We got along well quickly but communication and building relationships with other groups took time. Card games and chats during break time broke the ice; by the end of the week, we were one much larger group instead of disparate teams.


The plan began to shift on Tuesday. The weather began to worsen as a typhoon approached. Some groups only worked a partial day Monday thanks to wind or rain, while mine was held back Tuesday morning and given a break. Work shifted inside for the afternoon, as we made jewelry out of slate tiles normally used for roofs that were recovered after the tsunami. And then the decision was made to abandon the camp site and move to another facility used by Peace Boat - a former clothing factory cleaned up by Peace Boat after the tsunami whose owners let the group use it as housing. Having a roof overhead and more communal space helped bring everyone together; riding out a typhoon together didn’t hurt things, either.

Wednesday we worked for a short time indoors, helping a fishery to clean cans recovered after the tsunami; the other group continued with jewelry. That only lasted half the day before we returned to our base thanks to worsening weather. The weather only got worse throughout the evening as the storm grew stronger; we never lost power, but there was cleaning done in the evening for water leaks and preparations to clean in shifts during the night. Fortunately that was canceled, as it would’ve meant waking at midnight and 3 am to help with the efforts.

After the storm, on Thursday we set out to downtown Ishinomaki to help clean up after the typhoon. We broke up into our teams and tackled different areas of the city, cleaning up trash and other stuff that had floated loose during the typhoon. This part of town was still in a really bad way from the March 11 tsunami, and the heavier-than-expected typhoon weather was not helping anything at all. The river was still swollen badly from the tsunami and now rose even higher; streets flooded a good bit as well. We had to stop and pull back in the afternoon, as rains made some areas impassable or dangerous for volunteer clean-up.

The JET Groups - the Nagasaki seven, two girls from JETs of African Descent, and our two Japanese team leaders.

On Friday, we packed up from the clothing factory, spent one last day cleaning at the beach, and made a final return back to the university for our last night. Only half (or even one third?) of the group had worked at the beach, so it was great to introduce the others to “our” working spot. It’s a beautiful stretch of coast, kind of reminiscent of the southern Oregon coast to me; our Japanese advisers kept saying that we could help raise spirits in town by cleaning the beach for use, and it’s hard to disagree.


By that last night I was glad to be done with work, but not terribly ready to leave. It was nice to not have to do more work, but I had finally started to break down barriers with the volunteers and get to know them. Many were Japanese college students, and others were also quite young; it was great to meet many peers and make connections. For many of the Japanese students, it was probably the most time they’d spent with Americans or other westerners at all; some had studied abroad, but all were receptive to talking and suffering through my Japanese. Importantly, I’m of course now closer with the group who came from Nagasaki, which is important.

By the time we returned back to Tokyo, the goodbyes were tearful. We’d bonded as a group doing necessary work to lend a hand to people who still desperately need assistance. Ishinomaki still needs help, and Tohoku as a whole still needs help, too. I’m glad to have gone and helped out; I might have to go again next year. To my JET friends: if you’re thinking about it, go. It will be amazing and rewarding in ways you can’t imagine. To my friends back home in the U.S.: it doesn’t matter whether it’s Japan, Haiti, New Orleans or anywhere else, disaster relief and aid is important, and though we’re good at reacting, we tend to forget things quickly. Try not to forget after the initial news has slid out of the spotlight, because recovery takes time.