This is an account of my 3-day trip in late August of 2011. Since then, the volunteer encampment has been shut down and INJM has moved to a house. I’ve been several times, but haven’t written about it. For a good more recent account of the situation there, check out this post from January of 2012.
Why I Went To Tohoku With Much Trepidation
I went up to Tohoku alone, having no idea at all what to expect. I didn’t know what I would be doing, who I would be doing it with, where I would be staying, or what I would be eating. And I wasn’t thrilled about any of this. Perhaps cautiously optimistic, but more like prepared for the worst.
I had for awhile had a vague notion of wanting to “go up” to “help out”, but I didn’t know how to go about it or what that would involve, or if I even should. I had heard about some Peace Boat ventures. Their trips seemed to have been planned for a full week though, a period of time I felt I couldn’t afford. They also had weekend trips, but I had heard that unless you speak Japanese quite well you will likely be in the way on these trips, whereas the weeklong trips were designed to be foreigner friendly. And I’d heard that from other people as well, just in general, that a lack of Japanese ability might make you more trouble than you’re worth. And that the money you spend to get yourself up there might be better spent on a donation.
I heard. It seemed. I heard. It seemed. All very vague, as vague as the notion in my head to go up there in the first place was. Not to mention discouraging. But the idea stuck with me.
I’m not really the volunteering type. If I were in my home country and such a disaster struck nearby, it might not even occur to me to volunteer. Sometimes I mistrust people who get too excited about doing good. And sometimes I wonder if I could be of any use at all. But something was drawing me to Tohoku, a sort of feeling that I owed this to Japan for all the good it had brought to my life over the past ten years of living here, and perhaps for all the crap I had given it in return. If this sounds like a stupid motivation, or very self-serving, then you’re in for a treat later on, when I make my recruitment pitch. This is just the tip of the iceberg of self-serving.
So stuck in this mire of hearsay and dribbles of information, one day I just Googled it: “Tohoku volunteer”. I selected only English pages to be displayed. Shockingly, this worked. The first thing that came up was a blog called Intrepid Model Adventures. It was a British man named Dean, staying in Ishinomaki and doing volunteer work, and encouraging others to come up and join him.
He was an exceedingly friendly and accommodating fellow, and immediately let me know I was welcome and that he would put me up and put me to work once I got here.
I tried as hard as I could to keep my correspondence to a minimum, as I was feeling I might be more hassle than I was worth, just one guy demanding so much logistical support just to come up for one lousy weekend. Inside though I was dying to know every last detail of what the weekend would be like before I went there. I find unknown situations stressful, being at the mercy of strangers in a strange place, and the only thing powerful enough to push me to take leap of faith such as this, voluntarily entering into a possible state of total abnegation, would be something like a moral imperative. I’m sure it sounds to you like I’m being melodramatic (or maybe you’re just wondering why I had to choose a word like “abnegation“), but I assure you these were the dramas going on in my head in the days before I left the comfort of my Tokyo home. It felt like an epic journey to me, something very unusual and a little frightening.
So when I arrived on Thursday August 18, 2011, five months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, I was still completely in the dark as to what would be happening once I got there.
The Volunteer Situation In Ishinomaki
Dean put me up in a small community center-type place called Meiyukan, where those on his volunteer team were staying, sleeping on mats on a tile floor similar to a Japanese school classroom. In fact, the building itself is very similar to a Japanese primary, middle or high school, but with only a couple rooms on the first floor and 5 or 6 on the second, along with bathing facilities. It had originally been a refugee center after its own flood damage was cleaned up, and there were still a few displaced people living there. At that time, Dean had about six other volunteers there, other foreigners like me or Japanese friends of those foreigners, who had contacted Dean similarly to the way I did, and some who had only a single day’s experience on me. Naturally, the number of people there changed daily.
We hopped on bikes that first drizzly morning, and I expected that our small team was going to cycle straight into the city and start….cleaning, or halling debris, or doing something, I had no idea what. I thought we would be alone somewhere, in an abandoned neighborhood with no one else around, and that I might possibly be allowed to go to a convenience store sometime in the afternoon to get a perfunctory and unsatisfying lunch. And then we would cycle back in the evening, and get up in the morning to do it all over again. I expected to kind of hate it, to be honest.
What we actually did was much, much different, and so much better. Rather than working isolated and alone in our own little corner of town, I was introduced to the larger community of volunteers working in Ishinomaki, and it made all the difference. We cycled to the campus of a Ishinomaki Senshu University on the northern outskirts of town, far from the tsunami devastation, to a place with dozens of tents—upwards of a hundred—camped out on the giant lawn. We met another primarily foreign volunteer group there, an organization called It’s Not Just Mud, headed by an Englishman named Jamie and operating that day with about six volunteers themselves. They were all camping on the lawn at the university, with the organization having been there since spring. I ended up working with It’s Not Just Mud for all three days there, as Dean was off distributing goods and taking care of some other tasks for Intrepid.
They took me to a table crowded with people near the university building and I got registered as a volunteer. Next, they put me in a mini-van, half filled with It’s Not Just Mud people and half filled with volunteers working with a Japanese group called Whiskey Go-Go.
So when we got to the work site, we were about 15 people strong, and there were others with the same group working on different sites in the same neighborhood. Whiskey Go-Go was the lead organization, finding the work to do and delegating the tasks, though there are of course many other organizations in Ishinomaki and Tohoku doing other work. Whiskey has graciously taken the largely foreign volunteers of It’s Not Just Mud and Intrepid Model Adventures under their wing and found ways to make us useful, even with some members (though certainly not all) having limited Japanese communication abilities.
Where In The World Is Ishinomaki?
So where exactly were we anyway, and why? At about 160,000 people, Ishinomaki is the largest city of the hardest hit of the tsunami affected areas. Sendai is a much bigger city of course, but is about an hour southwest and slightly further from the epicenter. My understanding also is that Sendai’s population is concentrated further inland, whereas the population of Ishinomaki hugs the shore. For these reasons, it is the de facto disaster central.
Here is a series of maps to help you zero in on where we were working and get a feel for the scale of the disaster and the cleanup effort.
The epicenter of the earthquake is off this map, but about where the line of latitude below the word “Sendai” meets the right/eastern edge of the map. You can see it here. This map indicates tsunami heights all over Japan.
There is a massive, fully-stocked supermarket in the area of town north of the train station, where the “A” pin is, that is easily accessible from most of the inhabited parts of Ishinomaki, and convenience stores as well are up and running as normal. There are also tons of fully functioning restaurants and businesses along the road labeled “By-pass” west of Meiyukan. Large suburban businesses, like family restaurants with parking lots and auto parts superstores. Basically, the parts of Ishinomaki that were not under water seem to be back to normal operations. If you were just dropped on this street, you would not know that half of the city had recently been devastated.
The Damage Sustained, Whiskey Go-Go, and The Workday
We set to work. Our task this morning was to pull up the ground level floorboards of a series of two story townhouses/apartment buildings of four units each. It was in a newer development, a residential neighborhood of mostly detached housing on wide streets. Similar to suburbs or a ニュータウン. We were doing the apartments today because that was the quickest and most efficient way to get families moved back into the neighborhood.
The water from the tsunami in this area had crested to above floor level of the second story of these houses. Some of the houses in the neighborhood still had inhabitable second floors, and some families were living in them. Some families had spent days surviving on the second floor of their house as the flood waters from the tsunami persisted. These people had made a snap judgment at the sound of the tsunami warning, to either rush to higher ground or go up to their second floor to wait it out. Those that went upstairs were also subject to a second snap judgment: what to take upstairs with them. I bet very few of them suspected they’d need enough food and water to survive for days. I try to imagine the horror of them standing there on their roof (the horror of even realizing that they had to get out on the roof), seeing the increasingly violent water crashing into their neighborhood and just rising, rising, rising. From videos and descriptions, it seems like the similarities between this tsunami and the breaching of levees in New Orleans is almost exact. The death toll from this tsunami stands at around 15,000, as compared to Katrina’s 1,800, a testament to how little time an earthquake and subsequent tsunami leave the population to react.
Many homes were still standing in the neighborhood, waiting for a decision to be made about their fate, or waiting for someone to pay the money for demolition, or waiting to be refurbished to be completely inhabitable again. Many more homes had already been completely demolished and carted away, however; there were a large number of completely vacant lots, some joined together to form fields of no insignificant size.
So we set to work in these apartments, pulling up the plywood floors. All the carpeting or flooring had already been removed by a crew before us, so we just hooked our crowbars under a corner and pried them up, sometimes using sledge hammers where needed, and spending more time on the details of the last remnants or hard to reach areas than on the major parts, as is often the case in work like this. My workmates were mostly foreigners like me, mostly university students and teachers or other professionals, mostly in their twenties. I don’t think any of us were experts in working at sites like this, but everyone picked up ideas and improvised techniques and strategies as we went along, and everyone maintained extremely good cheer and an eagerness to put in as much work as we could while we were here.
Whiskey Go-Go, the Japanese team we were all ultimately working for, had been running their operation since shortly after the disaster struck. The founder of the group, Yuutaro, had come up from Tokyo and bicycled into the heart of the disaster area a mere few days after the tsunami waters had receded. He set to work right away and has been here ever since. Yuutaro is a squat packet of muscle, with an unbroken sheet of tattooing down to his fingertips and one even crawling up the right side of his face. I never spoke to him in depth, but his presence just exudes command of any situation via intelligence and a heart the size of mount Fuji. I heard that children love him, but anyone could have guessed that without being told just by seeing him in action.
The first house Yuutaro’s group rebuilt was that of a woman I would guess to be in her sixties named Hashimoto (surname). Once her house was completed, she began cooking lunch in her kitchen for the workers on the team. By the time I got there in late August, it had turned into a large communal feasting of mouth-watering Japanese home-cooking, all seated around a few large tables in her living room and served up by Hashimoto and a handful of helpers.
Her house became known as “Hashimoto-san Uchi”, which is something like “Hashimoto House” in English, without the possessive “’s” that would normally be used grammatically. It was a sort of headquarters of operations for Whiskey Go-Go. We would go there in the morning to be distributed to work sites, reconvene for lunch, hanging out as a motley assortment of 20 or 30 on the corner, sharing stories and rumors, washing our boots, and eating the frozen treats that Hashimoto-san also provided in the dedicated volunteers freezer, and then reconvene once more at the end of the day, partaking of more frozen treats and maybe some fresh fruit Hashimoto-san had cut up for us.
Hashimoto-san is cut from the same cloth as Whiskey Go-Go leader Yuutaro. She’s got a big grizzled smile and laugh, a commanding voice without a trace of artifice, and she stands on not a shred of ceremony. They are leaders of a tightly knit community of gyspy-esque scrappers that makes Whiskey Go-Go not only a most welcoming of groups, but quite possibly the most fun.
I met an American man named Lee sitting outside of Hashimoto House just before that first lunch. He is a 50-something and from Phoenix, and Hawaii and Florida before that, his sunny attitude bearing out a lifetime of living in warm climes or near a beach. He built houses when he was young, went into development in the 90’s, and then found himself back at work sites when the market collapsed. He was at home in Phoenix when he heard news of the tsunami, and saw the story on the news of the American schoolteacher at a small school near the shore in Tohoku. She had been teaching there with the JET program since 2008, a recent college grad spending a few years teaching abroad after a lifelong fascination with Japan from afar, when the earthquake hit and she found herself thrust with the other teachers into the role of tsunami evacuation director for a large group of primary school children. She stayed at her post until the last child had been picked up, although I can imagine the Japanese staff graciously absolving her of responsibility, understanding that this was not what she had signed up for, and urging her to evacuate before them. But she stayed. She was last seen alive bicycling as fast as she could away from the ocean and towards higher ground.
This walloped Lee upside the head and tore out his heart, not the least because he has a daughter about that age with an Asian studies degree that had been considering coming to Japan to teach. Lee got on the first flight to Japan he could manage, and not speaking a shred of Japanese, made his way to Tohoku. He hooked up with one fellow, and within a week found himself pulling weeds in someone’s garden. Knowing there must be places where his decades of builders experience would be in great demand, his friends told him Ishinomaki was the place he had to go. He went next to Sendai to try to hook up with a group, but the Catholic charities told him he was of absolutely no use to anyone without any Japanese ability. He pushed on to Ishinomaki anyway, on his own, and that’s when Lee and Whiskey Go-Go found each other, a match made in heaven, forged on faith alone.
He had done his time with the other Whiskey Go-Go vanguard, shoveling the toxic mud in the mid-summer heat, but by the end of the summer they were all on an advanced team doing the expert work needed to prepare the houses for us weekend warriors to do whatever grunt work we could handle. By the time I met him, just days before he had to return to the states for an indefinite time period for a job there, he had mastered his own rudimentary Japanese patois, and his workmates had all leveraged their six years of English education into a crash course in Lee-speak, and the communication among them included but was not limited to newly invented cross-cultural Japlish and work songs, and possibly some unrepeatable jokes. The first thing I heard Lee say when I met him at Hashimoto House that first lunch was “Well, here come some more gaijin.” I had mistaken it for a snide remark from an old Japan hand, but I quickly learned that Lee didn’t have a snide bone in his body, and was probably just practicing his Japanese. If Yuutaro’s heart is the size of Mount Fuji, Lee’s could fill grand canyon. (You can see video of Lee telling his story here. It’s clip number 10.)
The Thursday night that I headed up to Ishinomaki, a large storm had rolled through all of northern Japan, and Tokyo as well, and we were blessed with unseasonably cool weather. But the workday ended up not being that taxing anyway. We took ten minute breaks every hour or so; usually the break would creep up on you before you were ready for it. We had an hour for lunch. And then everyone called it quits at 3:30. It came out to about 2 ½ hours of work in the morning and another 2 ½ hours in the afternoon.
Like probably most people who go up to Tohoku, I was pretty gung ho for the project, and was prepared to work for however long was needed without complaint. I don’t mean this as a credit to my goodness though; I had had to build up a resolve to work hard over the days prior to my trip, to protect myself and the volunteer organizations from my own laziness. It had been a long time since I’d done physical labor of this type, nearing a decade and a half, and my memories of me in that situation were of a kid at a work site on summer break from college, or on a team for a grounds improvement project at summer camp, slacking and whining his way through a job until quitting time. I was horrified at the prospect of finding myself doing the same thing at a disaster site, and as a full-grown man no less, so the days prior to my trip up north were peppered with frequent self-reminders of what sort of attitude I was going to have to adopt to avoid embarrassing myself and making life difficult for others.
So when I discovered how short the workday actually was, I fear I may have protested too much, and inadvertently given in to a little of the whining I had tried so assiduously to avoid. Going into it blindly as all the volunteers were, though, I suspect a lot of people felt that way their first day on the job. To borrow a phrase from American reality TV: I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to work. But of course, as in reality TV so too in joining a volunteer team that has graciously allowed your inexperienced self to work alongside them: “I’m here to work” is the refrain of the self-conscious newbie verging on being a pain in the ass, not the selfless workhorse you imagine yourself to be. I imagine if you stay up there long enough to get to know what is going on for yourself, you can find ways to keep yourself usefully occupied for as long as you want, but as a weekend warrior you are still a guest and best dealt with on a schedule. And in the end the schedule makes sense; it is telling that all the old hands tend to follow the same schedule. Safety is the primary concern, not just out of common decency but because if you get injured you really will be more trouble than you’re worth. Further, keeping morale up will keep the volunteers around longer. The job is so massive, and progress comes in such small portions, that there is no sense in working to the point of burnout.
Our first workday was cut even shorter, as it happened, by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami warning. Aftershocks have been coming heavily and frequently since March 11, of course, and quakes that would normally have been remarkable are completely ignored these days. Just this past Friday afternoon at my desk in Tokyo one hit that eventually got strong enough for me and my office mate to finally make eye contact and raise our eyebrows. It was of a size that in the past would have gotten my personal internets a-chattering, but this time not a single one of my Facebook friends posted about it. I still don’t know where the epicenter was or how big it was.
We were on break in Ishinomaki when this one hit, around 2:00, after only an hour back on the job after lunch, and it was big enough that we inched a bit into the middle of the street lest any of the debris from the houses come flying out. (None did, of course.) An exceedingly precautious tsunami warning over the public address system came on its heels, and our workday was called, not to scramble to higher ground just yet, but to convene at Hashimoto House in case any scrambling would be required. None was.
Days 2 and 3
The next day our group was divided. Some of the It’s Not Just Mud people were involved in a day of games and picnicking at a local park, a morale booster for displaced children and families. Some of the group went back to the houses. I was dispatched to a weedy and overgrown 公民館, a.k.a., koumin-kan, a.k.a., a type of community center, which was meant to be cleaned up for possible housing of volunteers throughout the winter. Some of the group was sent inside to clean up, and my group was on grounds duty, pulling up weeds and cleaning up a shed, and digging up the 2-cm-thick layer of mud from the tsunami that had settled on the grounds just as it had in the houses.
This ended up being a deeply satisfying job, because the koumin-kan went from looking like the sort of place you might as well bulldoze, first thing in the morning, to a fully inviting and inhabitable lodging by evening. A few of us remarked that we had really felt like we earned our Hashimoto-san Uchi lunches that day. No need to lamely protest that we hadn’t worked hard enough this time. Oh, and I also discovered that, yes, being there to make friends was a fine way to spend my time, and took not a moment’s worth of accomplishment away from your day. It most likely added to it, in fact.
The third day I was back in the houses, this time down near the river and very near the shore, due south of the unmarked red box on the map above. The floorboards had already been lifted, and we started the day shoveling the toxic 2-cm-thick layer of mud from the concrete floors and putting it into sandbags to be carried outside, and ended it by trying to bring down every last bit of drywall we could. I had a surgical mask I had brought up on my own, and a pair of goggles, but the goggles got fogged and the mask stifled my breathing, so I only put them on for the tasks that absolutely required them.
I had gotten the hang of the pace of this type of work by then, and felt much more useful than the first day, able to jump into the work site and start making decisions myself for how to accomplish the tasks at hand. It also occurs to me looking back that I was under the direction of a cheerful and enthusiastic Japanese-speaking woman the whole day, and worked side-by-side with several Japanese speakers as well, and my limited ability (a recent failed JLPT N4, but studying hard for the first time in a decade) was sufficient to get the job done. I can understand many groups’ reluctance to take on non-speaking foreigners, and in many cases it would be a hindrance, but as Lee and his Whiskey Go-Go compatriots proved it can also be attitude and attentiveness that are most important.
So you thinking you might want to go? Do you have the time, the money, and the desire, but for some reason are still thinking maybe you shouldn’t go? Is there perhaps something you can’t quite put your finger on holding you back? Do you perhaps feel unworthy? Read my next post, Why You Should Go To Tohoku To Volunteer If You Want To.
Like what you’ve seen here? Read my next post, Why You Should Go To Tohoku To Volunteer If You Want To
Table Of Contents
1) Why I Went To Tohoku With Much Trepidation
2) The Volunteer Scene In Ishinomaki
3) Where In The World Is Ishinomaki?
4) The Damage Sustained, Whiskey Go-Go, and The Workday
5) Days 2 & 3
6) Why You Should Go To Tohoku To Volunteer If You Want To