On the Saturday evening after the workday was through, I went to the tent city at the Ishinomaki Senshu University where It’s Not Just Mud, Whiskey Go-Go, and other groups were camped out, and had some beers and barbecue with my fellow volunteers.
As I sat there drinking my second can of beer, listening to stories from the experienced volunteers, and riffing and joking with everyone, including an impressive and spontaneous rapid-fire volley of each person’s favorite Simpson’s quotes (“Oh Edna, you and I both know that these children have no future!”), it occurred to me that I was having more fun this weekend than I had had on any vacation I had taken in recent memory, and some of my recent vacations have been pretty good. Not just at this Saturday night soiree, but all day digging mud and pulling weeds as well. I really had gone up fully prepared to be miserable for three days, prepared to sacrifice my own well-being for whatever needs I would be able to address while I was there, but that proved to be utterly unnecessary. The work day never left me feeling run down and watching the clock. Doing purposeful labor like that genuinely felt great, as it’s something I almost never get to do in Tokyo. I found myself experiencing a level of contentment I hadn’t in a long time.
This isn’t cheer-squad recruitment rhetoric. I’m a cynical person sometimes. As I said in the first post, I tend to be wary of people who get too excited about doing good. Sometimes it seems like they’re wearing it like a fashion accessory. (Yeah, I am petty and judgmental like that, but keep reading–this may be the least of my problems.) And if something is crap I have to either say it is crap or keep my mouth shut, no matter how useful it would be to say it’s a bowl of cherries. I assure you, then, that my weekend in Ishinomaki was a real true-to-life bowl of cherries.
But I’m not here to promise you you’ll have a good time if you go, or that you’ll meet awesome people. You might get a bunch of douchebags that weekend. Heck, the people I worked with might have been douchebags for all I know—or maybe I was the douchebag on the crew— but it’s hard not to like someone when you’re doing this kind of work with them.
Nor am I here to lay a guilt trip on you, to preach a sermon of love and then pass the plate. If you don’t want to go, I’m 100% okay with that, and my opinion of you won’t shift one bit because of it.
What I’m doing here is writing to the people who already know they want to volunteer in Tohoku, but just don’t know how, or whether they even should. I want to help you get out of the way of yourself, to lay bare some of the things that might be stopping you, so you can just get on a bus or train or in a shared car and go.
Your first question might be: Am I even needed? Will I be of any use to anyone, or will I be in the way?
At that barbecue Saturday evening, I asked Jamie, the leader of It’s Not Just Mud, if it was alright if I sent people who wanted to volunteer his way, even people who could only come up for a weekend and couldn’t speak much Japanese. It was a sincere question. His response was an equally sincere and slightly baffled “Are you kidding?” I assured him I was not. He replied “Yes, definitely yes. Send everyone. There is so much work to do, and we need so many people.”
So that’s simple enough. Tohoku needs volunteers. You now know what volunteering entails, and you know of a way to do it, no matter who you are.
But perhaps there are other concerns sloshing around in your gourd and mucking up the works, things you may not even be aware of. For example, surprisingly, you may be feeling selfish for wanting to do this. Selfish for wanting to volunteer? Let me explain.
You probably understand that, being but one inexperienced member of a large team that itself will chip away only a tiny bit at the entire problem in a single workday or weekend, your actual individual contribution may be so small as to be unmeasurable. So, you ask yourself, why then does it have to be me? Why am I so eager to be the one to go up and be a functioning cog in this machine? I’m not so special. I might even be unworthy. Surely I must have an ulterior motive. Probably it is one or both of these:
- I am a disaster tourist. Sure I want to help, but I want to go and ogle the disaster too.
- I want to have bragging rights to the fact that I’ve been there, and been there to volunteer no less. The admiration I get from my peers will be awesome. Or the admiration I give to myself will make up for the turd I am in my normal life, and hopefully make it easier for me to live with myself.
So let’s get at this then: yes, you’re absolutely right. You may well be being very selfish for wanting to go up there, for both of these reasons. A disaster area is fascinating, the chance to witness the power of such a rare force of nature irresistible. And it feels kind of slimy to have that much voyeuristic fascination with something that caused this much devastation to so many lives. This was horrible for many, many people.
Also, it’s awesome to be admired, even if you plan on protesting that you don’t deserve any admiration. The admiration will still make you feel good.
In fact, there’s a good chance that the amount of benefit and good feelings you get from volunteering will outweigh the amount of sorrow you feel for the people who suffered in the disaster. There’s no getting around it: even in your best moments you are a self-serving piece of work. It’s always about you, isn’t it? Sigh.
Not everyone of course. I don’t accuse everyone of this. I know many pure-hearted people to whom these motivations would never even occcur. But I also know there must be others besides myself with these less pure thoughts, and if there aren’t, then everyone go ahead and turn your head away from me in disgust.
If anyone’s still looking my way, let me tell you something: just crawl out of your own rear end and embrace these feelings. Don’t speak about them, of course, especially not in Tohoku, and never, never, never, never forget that at least 15,000 people have died on the ground upon which you are working. But also don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed, because here’s the kicker: it absolutely does not matter one bit. Not even a little. As long as you go up there and work as hard as they ask you to for as long as you are there, the thoughts and feelings in your head and heart are utterly irrelevant to the main goal of getting people in Tohoku back to as much of their normal lives as can be salvaged as quickly as possible. And I say “irrelevant” in the best possible way, not that you don’t matter, but that your mental state is for you alone to savor, and frankly no one else gives a crap about it.
We get that out of the way? Good, let’s talk about another thing holding you back, cost. Again, the reason cost is holding you back may not be what you expect. And again, I’m not here to tell anyone what their budget is, or squeeze money out of you. You’re budget is entirely your business.
No, I want to speak to those who know they have the money and the time, but are struggling with guilt, thinking that it would be an awful waste of funds just to get themselves up there to do a little work for a single weekend. Isn’t that selfish? Wouldn’t donating the money be a better use of it?
Let me get at this one too. Here’s the outlay of the cost: If you are working a regular job and only coming up for the weekend, then there are basically two ways to get to Ishinomaki from Tokyo without taking any time off of work. Using a two-day weekend as an example, you can take an overnight bus there on Friday, arrive Saturday morning and start working, sleep overnight Saturday and work all day Sunday, then take an overnight bus back and arrive back home Monday morning and go to your job. This can be as cheap as 6,000 yen round trip, and might work for some people.
Personally, I find it impossible to sleep or get any rest on a bus. Or a plane or a train, for that matter. The other option then is the only one that works for me: come and return by shinkansen. The total roundtrip cost for this, including bus between Sendai and Ishinomaki, is 22,780 yen.
Damn. How many meals or crowbars or liters of fuel could you buy with 22,780 yen?
Certainly, donating 22,780 yen to Whiskey Go-Go or It’s Not Just Mud or any other charity would be a grand use of that money. They do need it. The thing is though, it’s really impossible to compare the utility of that vs. coming up for a weekend yourself. I don’t know how you would even start, and I don’t think any of the leaders on the ground in Tohoku would have an idea either. Their message is simply “Please come. You are needed. Please give. Money is needed.” Full stop.
So let me make two arguments to convince you it is okay for you to go to Tohoku to volunteer if you want to. First, consider that the utility of your trip doesn’t end at the small amount of work you personally are able to accomplish in your short time there. You truly will be an ambassador and evangelist as well, and this isn’t just feel-good rhetoric. You may think that everything anyone could know about Tohoku without going there has already been covered, and that anyone who wants to know can find out. Strictly speaking, this is probably true. But the fact is most people won’t go looking for the information, and most people will slowly forget about Tohoku. Most people, and I emphatically include myself in this, are far more interested in things people they know report to them, than in things random strangers report to them. So you probably will not come back and touch a million lives with the story you tell, but you will come back and touch a couple dozen lives of people who may not have listened to anyone else. These people may in turn choose to go up and volunteer themselves, and thereby touch more lives, or they may donate money they wouldn’t have otherwise, or they may do neither, but instead just remember that Tohoku is a place which exists and which is still a disaster area. Remembering may not seem like much, but it is better than not remembering.
Further, if you are worrying about whether at the end of the weekend you will be able to justify to yourself the expense for the amount of work you accomplished, let me try to flip that too: think of the travel money as vacation money for yourself, not as money you are giving to disaster relief. So far 100% of the people I’ve known who have gone up to volunteer have had a very good time doing it, in a manner respectful to the horror of the situation, and have wanted to go back without any hesitation. Not out of duty. They want to go because they love it, for many reasons. So, what the hell, go ahead and budget it as a vacation. Spend the travel money not on Tohoku, but on yourself.
The first time, you may go because you want to see this place firsthand. The second time you go it may be to commune with friends and other good people you met the first time. You would consider both of these to be valid reasons for spending money on a vacation. It’s a little silly to not consider them valid reasons to spend money to go to a place where you will be helping people re-build their lives.
Again, though, I don’t mean to sound like I’m promising you a good time. I’m just telling you what happened to me. It’s probably best though if you go without any expectations. Be prepared to work with douchebags. And then be extra glad when you don’t have to.
If You Want To Go, Here’s What You Should Do
If you want to work with It’s Not Just Mud, go to their website, itsnotjustmud.com. Since I wrote this in September, the organization has turned into a well-oiled machine, and you can figure out most of what you need to know on their site. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions though. Also, here’s my page about getting to Ishinomaki from Tokyo.